There are between 40 – 50 million Yoruba in West Africa and the diaspora. This race of Africans has a peculiar knack for education, most especially in their homeland root, Nigeria. No matter how indigent, a parent wants the child to receive western education until the age of sixteen before going on to learn a trade or skill, if going to the university was some sugarcandy mountain beyond the parent’s grasp. When Islam came with its kind of education, the Yoruba attended devotedly hence there were thousands of Koranic schools in the hinterlands of Ibadan and Ilorin especially. Shortly after the missionaries arived with education, there was huge attendance of Christian schools especially in Lagos and Abeokuta where the educated returnees from Sierra Leone settled. Yet, Bible education, like Koran education, was not enough for clergymen like Ajayi Crowther who was not only the first to write a book in Yoruba language but as well Igbo, Isoama-igbo in 1857. Crowther got into trouble with the European clerics for insisting that schools should train African children to be professionals and not just pastors, thus instituting the secular CMS which his son in law, father of Herbert Macaulay, first headed. Maths, biology and other secular subjects were taught alongside religion. Meanwhile the Yoruba Muslims hesitating to send children to Christian schools soon saw that Christians were becoming lawyers and accountants while their own children only graduated from (ile kewu) Koranic schools to become Muslim clerics who were misfits in the fast changing world. They were laughed at and called ole ntele alfa (lazy folks following the cleric) since a cleric did nothing but lived on handouts.
By independece, the Nigeria of the late fifties and early sixties had nationalists, one of whom was Awo. Chief Awo would quote, “to free the people, educate them.” He came up with blueprint for free universal primary education, for then, only 35% of children of school age attended school in 1952. His plan for free education and health would gulp 10 million pound sterlings when total government revenue was 5 million pounds. Senior British officials advised him to scrap this utopia. Yet he achieved this feat. It was a miracle, for even he and his planners had estimated 175,000 children, but alas nearly 400,000 showed up for enrolment in 1955. There were only 25 secondary schools then, not enough to take the primary graduates by the time they finished, Awo expanded these to 139 before the primary graduates finished. By 1959, the number of secondary school pupils had risen to 840,000 from 6,000 in 1952. The number of students were greater than those in the rest of Nigeria combined. It was a revolution.
Why did so many Yoruba flock to education so? This dynamism is not in all people. Islam, which often antagonized western education as it often happened in the north, did not stop the zeal for enlightenment. It has to do with the cultural heritage of the Yoruba, an inherent attribute coded over the centuries in their being.
When the colonialists began to arrive in Africa, they often see the African as having no religion, or too crude to institute one. All they often saw were native doctors, herbalists or dibias. No codified religion, for it would take a degree of enlightenment to do that. In short it is only something that deep that would not give way totally to the twin of religion and colonization totally. Japan, China, India have shown it is dynamic to globalize the local and localize the global. For UNESCO to finally see Ifa as one of the standard religions of the world with a unique system of education and spirituality. Both the Torah of the Jews and Koran of the Muslims were once oral literature before they were written, and they serve to educate and spiritually enlighten, from teacher/cleric to the pupils.
Nigerian movie industry is replete with mediocre who portray a babalawo as a witchdoctor or herbalist. No. A herbalist treats with herbs alone, a witchdoctor is involve in the craft of wizadry. A babalawo primarily divines with Ifa. He is trained to know as much of the chapters and verses of Ifa, which he chants when revealed during divination and which gives the client solution to his issue. Mind you, incantation is not IFA verses. Incantation is invocation of forces or beings while Ifa verses are like reading verses from the Bible, Koran or Bagavad Gita. The babalawo is a teacher and has a band of pupils called akapo around him always, young boys he will teach the verses until they graduate and be priests too. A part of what the client brings as sacrifice will be for him to take care of himself and family, just like tithes or offerings.
The babalawo is like a Jewish rabbi, a sort of professor, who knows all but still wise to know he does not know all as a verse states how Orunmila, the prophet of Ifa, submitted himself to his disciples for initiation like one just learning. The binary principle in Ifa requires mathematical thinking, a principle we today see in not just life as a whole but basic computer system. The babalawo must know a little of this and a little of that, herbal medicine, calculation, Yoruba history, morality, proverbs, literature, grammar (yoruba), the egungun masquerade, sango, islam, witchcraft, nature, which all have verses speaking about them. This is why a babalawo could know herb, but a herbalist who had not spent years learning ifa cannot be a babalawo.
Orunmila had sixteen chief disciples and each has an oral book dedicated to him. In the Book of Ika Meji (note the meji is in all the sixteen reflecting the binary coding), the eleventh book, a verse goes, “mo ba Oniikamogun (onika son of ogun), o kawo (placed his hand) ifa leri, o fi aso aka (costly cloth) bora, paaka (small masqurades) meta joko ti (three pakaa sat with) Onikamogun, Onikamogun mo aka (granary) meta si ita. O so ibaaka meta (three mules) mo idi aka (granary). O pe Lakaa (person’s name) ko yanko (feed with grass), ni idi aka (granary), ibaaka (mules) ta (kick) Lakaa (person) lejika (shoulder). Lakaa-la, Akaakagbasa ati Sasioro (three young priests) lo difa fun Saabamo (cast ifa for someon called Had i known), nijo ti won beere lowo Onikamogun (on the day they asked Onikamogun), ti o fi nje oruko kaakaa wonyi? (Why he bears these strongly pronounced names) ti iya nje (his mom bears) Akaagbon, ti baba nje (dad bears) Akaagun, ti aburo nje (his young sibling bears) Akaakaagbasa, ti egbon nje (older one bears) Akaakaawo. Won ni nitori apa awon o kaye (it is because they cannot handle the world). Orunmila, afedefeyo (Orunmila who beautifies speech) je ki apa akapo kaye re (let your follower/disciple/pupil be strong to handle his life.”
This verse shows the literature with the constant use of alliteration (k) and assonance (a), from a verse in Ika Meji….note Ika heading the whole kakaka resonance. Ka is also ambigous for strength and ability to handle somethimg which ended in prayer to have the power to handle life. This shows the imagination of these people in pre colonial times to put together such a verse for literary and spiritual meanings. Ifa is practiced as far away as Latin America, the US and Spanish Europe, if we will not mention West Africa where the Togo people bear Akapo and linked to Ifa, to a tribe in Ghana’s Accra who still link their descent to Ile Ife, the ancestral home of all Yoruba-related folks before they spread out all over the world. Another peculiar thing about Yoruba is to have an oriki or praise poetry for everything. This is why every Yoruba family has its poetic anthem that chants the qualities and attributes of that clan whether it were a hunter family, warrior, king, smith or masqurading clan.
So while the colonial masters could say they stopped people from killing twins in Africa, Yoruba had always revered twins like gifts from heaven. Who knows why a recent study shows that it is the Yoruba people of Oyo among the tribes of the world that have the highest number of twins birthed there. Scientists say it is because of a specie of yam eaten in that part…i dont want to delve into that discourse now. Oyo was an organized state, and not clans or villages, with walled cities, governors and senate woven around an emperor.
Hence the literature of the Yoruba, now studied in foreign universities, attested to by caucasians coming to Nigeria for the first time and already speaking Yoruba to complete their IT for university studies in Yoruba. Not mentioning those coming in droves for Ifa or other such cultural/spiritual functions. The enlightenment and dynamism of the Yoruba had enabled this race of people to bear a light, which slavery exported to the New World, and colonialism or imported religions have proven inadequate to snuff out. Ifa encompasses proverbs, oriki poetry, literature, and the inifiniteness of learning more. A proverb says who taught you how to be wise without teaching you how to be foolish sometimes? This is why despite Ifa encompassing all myriad of faiths in Yoruba land, it is unheard of for a Yoruba to go to war over beliefs. It is only unfortunte that while Ifa points out the binary of life and needed wisdom to live with each other irrespective of faith, the imported religions make division, tearing homes apart and even killing or ostracizing others as a duty for God who made all in beautiful, varying qualities only the deep can understand. So much to learn…so much more.