The Origin of the Yoruba By Prof. Saburi Biobaku - THE DAILY CRUCIBLE



Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Origin of the Yoruba By Prof. Saburi Biobaku


   The history of a non-literate people is essentially remembered history. I have argued that since written sources are few the historian of the Yoruba cannot afford to ignore traditional accounts. These accounts are preserved in the memories of the people and so he must ascertain what the people remember. He must collect oral evidence. 
As I have said before there are the professional oral historians, the palace drummers and ballad dancers – the Arokin and the Onirara – who flatter the great and exhort them to do good by recounting the illustrious deeds and the great munificence of their ancestors. For humble folk, the history of the lineage or of the tribe is involved in everyday life: when a man acquits himself well he is praised as a worthy son of a great ancestor; in a moment of failure a man is adjudged to be unworthy of his forebears. Then in cases touching land or succession to titles, knowledge of the past is often the deciding factor; in order to make good one’s claim one must recall age-old bequests or recite a long list of chiefs and establish one’s link with them. 
    In oral history, memory is sharpened by constant use. History is nevertheless imperfect. It selects and in so doing it usually ignores unpleasant events. You will see at once that it is necessary to check the memory of one man against that of another. The historian must collect his oral evidence from all sides to a dispute, if he is not to be deceived. Then he must approach his witnesses in the best way to ensure that they tell him the truth as they know it. If he gathers the notables together, they will only regale him with stories of the valour of their ancestors and like old soldiers, they will deflect him from his purpose by embroidered accounts of old campaigns. Nor is an assembly of the young any more helpful; they often see the past only in terms of the present and so patriotic grievances against their neighbours –irredentism, quest for lost territories – usually pervade their accounts. The best course for the historian is to find out the knowledgeable persons in the area of his subject and interview them in an informal atmosphere. With a few guiding questions, the witness may give valuable evidence and if one is lucky he may burst into an illuminating topical song if the past.    

    I once collected oral evidence at Ile Ife. As one would expect in such a historic city where witness who lied glibly and to my joy there were others who were not ashamed to say they did not know the answers to some of my questions. Let us take one example in which the skilful use of oral evidence can throw light upon the problem of the origin of the Yoruba. Among the priest chiefs at Ile Ife the myth of Ife as the centre of creation prevailed. Ife, Oyelagbo, the home of 401 gods is undoubtedly the cradle of the world. The people of Ife in general also hold this view just as among the Bini and related people of Ife or Uhe was once synonymous with Heaven!
It was only when I enquired into the various events which generally take place during the installation of an Oni of Ife that I came across the truth as to the immigration of the Yoruba into Ife. In other words, the popular view, fostered and encourage by the priests, is that Ife is the centre of creation; whilst the descendants of the leaders who brought the people to Ife are constantly reminded of the event during the installation ceremony of the representative of the chief leader of the migration. Mr Mackenzie in an Intelligence Report has recorded the gist of the event for us; the Obajio addresses the Oni at the link of the Ijio road thus: – 

      “This is the route by which your father Odua entered Ife and my father     Orajioye was his trusted servant. It was your father who placed my father here and therefore all the women and children of this quarter are yours and should be protected by you.”

    In this simple ceremony of affirming allegiance in return for protection, the fact of a historical event is enshrined. There is also present the most important aspect of remembered history – a past event of great significance is re-enacted during the course of contemporary event. The present is linked with the past and in so doing the memory of the past is re-furbished. Here lies the kernel of the innate conservatism of the Yoruba (and the African in general): the present mirrors the past, so the chieftainship, the latest edition of the pattern of past leadership – all subverse to the historical tradition.

   Let us deal with one more example of re-enactment. In Ketu, a Yoruba town in French Dahomey, when the Alaketu dies, all fires are extinguished and later rekindled from a brand which has been fetched from the original cave from which the Yoruba had borrowed fire from the earlier inhabitants on their arrival in that vicinity.
Then during the installation of the new Alaketu, he ritually experiences all the vicissitudes which had beset the founder – Alaketu - in his migration from Ile Ife to Ketu. Even more to our purpose is the role which the Baba Elegun plays during the ceremony. The Baba Elegun title is hereditary in the Oyede family. The holder commits to memory the list of all the Alaketu from the leader of the migration down to the present ruler with names of their immediate parents and down to the present ruler with names of their immediate parents and compressed accounts of the most significant events of their reigns.
It is his duty to teach this list to his son and destined successor in the office to Baba Elegun who in turn teaches it to his own son and successor. The Baba Elegun must recite this list during the installation ceremony, knowing full well that if he makes a single mistake the people of Ketu will regard it as an evil omen and it may result in his death. So far, no Baba Elegun has made mistake in reciting the list and thus we are assured that an authentic dynastic list is being handed down from generation to generation in Ketu.
    It is possible to compile such dynastic lists elsewhere among the Yoruba. They are valuable in helping us to solve the problem of dating. I have worked on several of these lists and others compiled for other non-literate peoples with a view to determining the average number of years to assign to a generation. If allow 25 to 30 years to a generation and to work backwards from the first Alaketu whose reign is dated in the historical period we shall find that Ketu was founded sometime in the 11th century A.D. Incidentally, Meek was calculated from the list of Kano Kings from Baganda, the founder king, down to the coming of the British that the Habe kingdom of Kano was founded at about 1060 A.D.

    We also have important evidence from relics of the past. The Yoruba country awaits much digging by Archaeologists: nevertheless, many visual sources already exist. There is the famous obelisk at Ile Ife, Opa Oranyan (Oranyan’s staff).

     There are the well-known terra cottas and heads found at Ife and the bronze works of Benin which Chief Egharevba has testified derived from Ife. More recently there were more heads found at Esie where they are now preserved in the House of Images. Everyone agrees that African art was mainly functional: some of the heads represented past rulers who had been deified and were usually placed in family or tribal shrines. It is also probable that like the Ashanti tools, the heads were intended to provide a visual chronicle of rulers and their consorts.  

    The dating of these relics and art objects by competent experts will certainly assist us in dating Yoruba migration. According to Meek, objects which Froebenius dug up from the Yoruba country – the Olokun head, etc. have been dated by Egyptologists as belonging to the sixth century B.C. I shall return to this aspect of the problem in my next lecture when I shall link the Yoruba migration with the major migrations known to have taken place in the Sudan. It is sufficient now for me to call attention to the value of the art objects to the historian of a non-literate society. In themselves they indicate a certain order of culture and artistic ability which their makers had attained. They also corroborate other evidence that people who either made or possessed them once had contact with a high civilisation. The fact that work of such excellence no longer appears among the people does not invalidate this view; for civilisations may decay and a people degenerate in culture owing to national upheavals. In our own time the adverse effect of the pressure of the tourist trade and mass production upon what artistic talent is left is obvious.

   My analysis of the oral evidence concerning the origin of the Yoruba points to a migration from a region under the Egyptian influence and the examination of the relics by experts confirms this.
In my next lecture we shall try to establish the probable source of Yoruba culture and civilisation and follow the routes by which they were diffused until a new centre emerged at Ile Ife.

-From the International Centre for Yoruba Arts and Culture (INCEYAC)

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