Araba Ifayemi Osundagbonu Elebuibon, the Chief Priest of Osogbo Kingdom, is a man of many parts. The world renowned Ifa priest, poet, playwright, dramatist and Yoruba culture icon speaks with KAYODE FALADE on his annual Ogbeyonu Festival, his life as an Ifa priest, scholar and Yoruba culture icon among other matters
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1947 here in Osogbo in the then Western Nigeria.
Was there a documentation of your birth?
No, there was no documentation. My parents did not go to school. But when I asked my mother about when I was born, she explained that I was born during the reign of a particular monarch of Ede. The monarch was Lagunju. Hence, I was called Lagunju according to the tradition/practice then where newborn babes were named after a favourite reigning monarch. When I had become mature, I consulted with the late Timi of Ede, Oba … to know how actually, Lagunju became king. The monarch promptly sent for the head of the Lagunju family who was then found to be indisposed, thus, he could not answer the summon of the king. Unfortunately, the man did not survive the illness, he died. I now asked someone working at the local council to help me check the records. It was he who now told me that the monarch was crowned in 1946. With the help of a friend, I also cast the horoscope to get the real date. It was through that, that I discovered that I was born on 25 July 1947.
Why did you investigate your date of birth?
I did it to keep the records straight. Research had become a part of me since I had been moving with the Whiteman. They don’t joke with research and record keeping. I learnt that from them, especially people like Ulli Bier. He loved research and investigation. When he came to Nigeria, he was into almost all African religions, festivals and culture. He wrote on almost all of them. And he was always taking me along and pushing me to the forefront. I learnt this from him.
What were the occupations of your parents?
My father was a babalawo (Ifa priest) and farmer. He was also a hunter. My mother was a trader.
How many wives did your father have and what position are you in the family?
My father had six wives and my mother was the youngest. I am the third surviving child of my mother. My father had 18 children. My mother had some difficulties in having me. Her eldest child was a male, the next a female, Ajitoni, who was an abiku (child destined to die young). She was born many times before she lived. To have me then became a problem. She had so many abortions and stillbirths that she had to start consulting priests and herbalists. It was during this period that a babalawo told her that she should only be taking water from the Osun River to drink and the goddess would give her a child. It was also foretold that she would have a boy child, who would become a famous babalawo. Lo and behold, nine months after, she had me. That is why my middle name is Osundagbonu (Osun forbids herbs or concoctions). I was still in the womb when my father appointed an Ifa teacher, my master, Ifaniyi, to teach me Ifa. My father had me in his old age and he was always conscious of the fact that he could die anytime before I reached maturity. Hence, he started teaching me deep things at a very early age. Whenever he was going out to attend to his clients or festivals, he would always take me along. We ate and drank together. I shared his bedroom. In short, I was always with him. In those days, there were not many medical doctors and hospitals as we have now; hence, the babalawo was the doctor, pharmacist, midwife, health provider, counsellor all rolled into one. And everywhere my father went as a highly revered babalawo, I went with him. This exposed me to a lot of things as a child.
There was an incident then that I still remember. There was a particular game played by kids. It involved spinning a snail shell and the boy who recorded the highest number of goals would sting the losers wit the tip of the conch. Brass smiths began casting the shell in steel and the tip became very sharp. On this fateful day, as the winner stung the loser with the tip; the skin split and blood gushed out. Everybody fled leaving the hapless boy alone. I approached him, held his bloodied hand and chanted some incantations my father taught me. Lo and behold, the bleeding stopped. To the other boys, it was a miracle. There was an eruption of shouts. Everyday came and I became a hero. But when my father heard of this, he admonished me. I was barely six years old when this happened.
How many of your siblings are babalawo?
All of us were taught Ifa and initiated into the Ifa cult. But with the advent of civilisation, many of them had embraced other religions. They are mostly Muslims now.
When did you start schooling and which schools did you attend?
I did not attend any formal school. My father forbade it. In 1955 when the free education programme of Chief Obafemi Awolowo began in the then Western Region, some people were going round from house to house registering children and asking them to be sent to school. My father and I were at the house of his brother, the then Oluode, when these men approached him saying, ‘Old one, please permit us to register this boy into our school’. My father refused bluntly. They asked him why and he told them that I would learn Ifa. They tried to convince him that going to school would not prevent me from learning Ifa as I could attend school in the morning and learn Ifa in the afternoon on my return. Still he refused. I think he probably felt allowing me to go to school would derail me and prevent me from becoming a babalawo as it had been foretold before my birth.
How come you read and write even the English language?
When my father died in 1957, I had to start going to Babalawo Faniyi Ajani, who my dad had long told, even while I was in the womb, that he would be my teacher. I went there every five days. Then one day, my mum said I should pack my stuff and go and live with Baba Faniyi. While ours was Ile Oluode, Olutimeyi, the founder of Osogbo’s compound, his was Oke Popo. It was there that I met some boys who were my age mates, attending school. They also had a private teacher who took them lessons after school hours. While this teacher taught them, I would sit with them and at times, eavesdrop while attending to my chores. But anytime my master caught me listening, he would be furious. Then one day, the teacher, one Mr Jimoh, asked them to spell ‘Shogologobangoloshe’. All of them could not. I offered to, but the teacher waved me away saying, ‘you are an Ifa acolyte, you don’t know anything’. But an elderly woman passing by persuaded him to allow me try since I offered to. Thus, very reluctantly, he allowed me. Then I got it right. He was shocked.
Then came a time when I had a friend who started as my client. When he saw my zeal for western education and how my master punished me for it, he advised me to do correspondence courses; which I embraced in earnest. I think the fee was five penny or something, quite cheap. And that was how I started. Then with time, I became more proficient and my handwriting better.
An incident occurred which later gave me freedom to learn and identify with western education more openly.
What was the incident?
My master could neither read nor write. However, there was a tailor who could and who helped him to read letters from his friend who was residing in the then Gold Coast now Ghana. There came a time when Mr Gabriel, that was the tailor’s name, moved his trade to another place because of better patronage. Because of this, my master’s letters from his friend were unattended to for a long time and they grew in bounds all unopened and unread. One day, Baba Faniyi beckoned on me saying, ‘Yemi, can you read these letters?’ I opened the nine letters and read all to him. He then gave me nine pence to buy sheets or papers and envelopes for the reply. I replied the letters and helped him to post them. When his friend came home, he asked for who helped my master to reply his letters, since the writer wrote better than the previous person. He even gave me 20 pence as present.
Since you did not go to school, how many years did you spend learning Ifa?
I spent 10 years and six months.
Who are the people who touched your life most apart from your parents and your master?
There are five people who affected my life most apart from those you mentioned. These are the late Duro Ladipo, Ulli Beier, Vergh Fatumbi, Dr Barbara Ann Teer and Prof Nonsitz Cayou.
How did these people enter your life?
The first person was the celebrated artist, dramatist, playwright, actor and culture ambassador, the late Duro Ladipo. He was my mentor, boss, leader and what have you? My master’s house was at Oke Popo, which was opposite the house of Ladipo’s father. I first got to know him in 1962. Mbari Mbayo was founded in Ibadan on 25 February, 1962 by Ulli Beier, Duro Ladipo, Wole Soyinka, Segun Sofowote and Segun Olusola. I was later appointed as their Cultural Adviser. I met Oga Duro at an Iyere Ifa chanting competition. It was when Ulli Beier noticed my dexterity at the event and compared to my relatively young age, he was impressed and asked Ladipo to invite me. This white man, Ulli Beir, was always attending every cultural/religious festival. He was with Ladipo and one Prof Armstrong, the director of the African Institute at the University of Ibadan, at the Ifa Oba Festival where they all saw me.
My taking up the offer, however, became a problem for me because I dared not tell my master that I was going to Duro’s house. He must not know.
My master, because of the Oba Koso play, which Duro acted as Sango with him, emitting fire from his mouth and smokes from his nose, made some people including my master to see him as a magician. The man would beat me asking me if I wanted to be a magician rather than an Ifa priest which I had been predestined to be. He took my association with the white men as arrant nonsense. He never wanted it. As my father instructed him, all he was interested in seeing me was a highly trained and versed babalawo.
When did you get married?
I got married in 1972. I got married late by the standard of that time.
Why was that?
I decided to work hard and long before I got married as I had no father or brother to foot the bill or help me feed my wife hence, I decided to be totally self reliant and economically independent before I got married.
Is your wife an actress?
No, I did not marry an actress for many reasons. The most important is that I didn’t see one that I loved enough to marry. There was a particular lady who was also an actress and relation of Duro Ladipo, my boss that everybody thought we were dating and I would eventually marry. But we were not dating. We were friends. Our relationship was strictly platonic.
This is rather strange for a theater practitioner of the old school who is believed to be a womaniser…
I have never been a womaniser. I do not drink alcohol neither do I attend parties or socialise. I am a very private person. If I was seen at a function, I must have been invited to come and perform. I eat good food and drink water. And it is not true that theatre practitioners of that time were womanisers. Most of them married many wives due to the necessity and peculiarity of the profession. It was not like today that women freely come to act. Then, women would not come and be actresses. No man would willingly release his daughter to come and be an actress. Hence, the theatre group leaders mainly had to marry the women and turn them into members of the cast.
How would you compare Nigeria of when you were growing up and that of now?
The Nigeria of my childhood days and youth is starkly different from now. There was much religious tolerance then. You could hardly decipher the difference between people of different faiths. We celebrated every festival together. We were all one big family. There was not much difference. But things started nose diving in the 80’s and 90’s. However, nowadays, there is so much intolerance bordering on hatred. Different teachings have damaged the cordial relationship between adherents of different faiths.
What was your experience at the country’s independence in 1960?
The people in government sent messages throughout all the places of worship seeking for prayers over the coming independence. They sent to churches, mosques and Ifa worshippers. I was also aware when Queen Elizabeth II visited Nigeria in 1956.
If you were not a babalawo, which profession would you have embraced or practised?
If I were not a babalawo, I would still have been doing what I am doing now: singing, acting, chanting ewi, delivering lectures and teaching all around. I could have been a lecturer in a university.
But why were your father and master so against your going to school?
I think it was out of fear that western education might poach me away from my calling. And western education actually did that to a lot of people. Christianity and western education really did a lot of havoc to our African religion and culture. Those of us practitioners had a lot of issues with them. Even Duro Ladipo had issues with his father who was a catechist. They could never comprehend how the son of a catechist would be dancing to bata generally regarded as belonging to Orisha people. He couldn’t comprehend his son dancing to bata, and chanting praises of Sango, the god of thunder and lightening. The elder Ladipo would say, ‘What is this Duro… in the house of Jesus?’ This is a Duro Ladipo who was the choirmaster and chief composer of the church! He even introduced gangan (Yoruba talking drum) and other indigenous drums to the church. His thinking was if you could paly the organ and accordion why not bata, gangan and other African musical instruments? Are they not all for melody and worship? It was seen as a sacrilege then. Members of the Anglican Church, where he was attending then, were scandalised. When the criticism was too much, he stopped going to church. But now, you can count churches where they do not play the gangan and other African drums.
Don’t you think going to school would have made you do things differently?
I don’t think so. I can read and write. I am literate. So what is the essence? What I believe is that it could be either way. If could have affected me negatively or positively.
Was there a particular time in your life that you did not act plays etc but only a babalawo?
Yes, since I stopped going on performance trips with Oga Duro and Ulli Beier and I was going abroad on my own. However, I performed ewi on television and radio.
What was the reaction of your boss, Duro Ladipo when you first travelled out of the country on your own?
In 1977 when I went to Brazil, the then Skecth newspaper reported it. When my boss got to know of it he just retorted, ‘ Hope, they won’t cheat this man so.’ His only concern for me then was for me not to be exploited because of my naivety.
What do you think is responsible for the gradual return or retracing of steps of Africans to the indigenous religion?
It is just happening. Soon, you would witness a massive return of people to the African religions. It is beginning to dawn on us that we had abandoned our roots. Gradually, the chicks are coming home to roost. We had a seminar some time ago at Emmanuel College, Bodija in Ibadan on Why Christians Recall Divination. We were all there from different faiths. Different people said a lot of things. Some said it was because they didn’t read the bible very well or they didn’t have strong faith etc. but I told them, that people had to make recourse to their roots because water will always go back to its source. All the black people of this world, whatever religion they now practice, are descendants of Orisa. Now they are returning to their source.
But some people are afraid that the African culture and languages especially that of the Yoruba are going extinct. What is your take?
Yes, there is cause to be alarmed. Bushes will soon overtake the footpath that is not treaded regularly. A language that is not used is on the way to extinction and that is why some of us are so committed into preserving this language. Language cannot be divorced from culture. What kills language most are code mixing and code switching. In fact, code mixing is worse. All the strata of the society are guilty. First, the government should deemphasise the premium placed on western education. The belief that if you are not science oriented etc, you are not intelligent should stop. Parents, however, have the major role to play by teaching their children their culture and language. Charity, they say, begins at home. Imagine, if children were well grounded in their culture, where would the skimpy dresses worn by women now come from?
Now that you are a traditional religion adherent, would you allow your children to marry a Christian or a Muslim?
Why not? Only fools would insist that their children should marry from a particular religion or sect. The most important things are the happiness and peaceful cohabitation of the couple. If you insist that they should marry from a particular race or religion, what if their stars are not compatible?
What is the importance of this Ogbeyonu festival you celebrate yearly?
The Yoruba believe that everybody has their own iseda or odu that gave birth to them; just like what the White call the zodiac signs or stars in horoscope. We celebrate it yearly to thank Olodumare and Ori for the outgone year.
How and when did you know the Odu that gave birth to you?
I got to know my Odu in 1962, the year I entered Igbodu. And I have been celebrating it since then.
Can a woman become a babalawo?
A woman can do all the rites and enter Ugbodu but she would not be called a babalawo. Rather, she would be known as Iyanifa. This caused a lot of uproar when I delivered a speech in Cuba many years ago. All the newspapers there were awash with the stories, both in the English and Spanish languages. But that is the truth. They could not comprehend my explanation because of what they had been made to believe. But my book, “Apetebi: The Wife of Orunmila,” laid the controversy to rest. A woman can be brought to Igbodu. But the truth is that all religions relegate the woman to the background. Until very recently, women were not consecrated as priests and they would sit on one side of the church in Christianity and also in Islam, a woman cannot lead prayers; they would be at the back. It is like that in almost all the religions. However, the Yoruba religions allow women a lot of liberty, which make them to be almost at par if not totally at par with their male counterparts. But it was not like that in the beginning too. It was Osun who liberated the women folk.
Your becoming the Araba of Osogbo, is it because of your popularity?
No, it is neither because of popularity nor fame. If one does not pass through all the rungs, its impossible to get to the top of the ladder of the Ifa kingdom. The number of rungs is however not specific. At times, there may be a lot of vacancies due to the passing on of the incumbents. Situations like this at times hasten the progression of the officers. It is a process embedded in seniority and steps. If it were to be because of fame or popularity I would have been an Araba since 20 or 30 years ago.
What are your roles as an Araba even as governorship election knocks in Osun State?
We traditional practitioners hold our regular meetings where we enjoin our members and non-members to eschew violence. ‘Vote, don’t fight’ is the current maxim. We also offer prayers and sacrifices so that peace may reign during the whole process.
Why does an Araba wear a crown like a king?
The Araba is a king in his own right. He is the king of all Ifa priests.
What is your favourite food?
I love pounded yam. I developed fondness for it through my father. It was the only food I knew until my father died and I was forced to go and live with my master. In fact, my master knew this of me and for the first few weeks when I got to his house, he was giving me pounded yam until he called me one fateful day and said, ‘Yemi, I cannot afford to be giving you pounded yam everyday. You must learn how to eat eba and other food like everyone else.’ Initially, I fell ill before I got used to other foods.
Why are you a polygamist even when there is an Ifa corpus that warns of the danger in having many wives?
There is no religion that states that a man should marry only one wife. No prophet or leader in the two other religions said a man must only marry one wife; the Christians are only emulating the white man. There is nowhere in their scriptures where they have it. Jesus Christ never said so. Islam openly preaches polygamy with a lid on four wives. The odu Ifa corpus, Oyeku Meji, only warns on what may emanate when you marry many wives; it never said do not marry more than wife. Ifa stipulates that a man should marry the number of wives he can cater for. Though Oyeku Meji has told us what may come out of the union with many wives, it all depends on one’s capability. Our fathers took many wives and they were able to control them. It is western civilisation that makes women not to be obedient to their husband as it was in the olden days. And this makes the life of a man with many wives to be miserable. One of the ways of subduing a woman in the olden days was the traditional rites a new wife was made to go through. In the traditional setting, the new wife would have been warned of the danger imminent in her thinking, plotting or doing evil towards her rivals and their children. This, sadly, is no more in many places and that is why many women now do what they do. In our own house, we are also worshippers of Ogun. The new wife would be taken to the Ogun shrine on the third day after marriage. There she would be asked to kneel at the shrine and given the dos and don’ts of the household. She dares not go against the warnings. Ogun is unforgiving and very swift to dispense justice.