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The Power of Oral Tradition: Oba Kiladejo On the Role of Women in Ondo History, By Toyin Falola

 Toyin Falola



As always, the Toyin Falola Interviews is a forum for intellectual debate and conversation on issues concerning African society and worldview. This intellectual debate was brought to the Ondo Kingdom in a three-hour-and-thirty-minutes interview that revealed a wealth of information on the history of the Ondo Kingdom, its culture, tradition, and the importance of women in its society. The interviewee and special guest, Oba Dr. Victor Kiladejo, and the interviewers, Professor Omotayo Oloruntoba-Oju, Professor Nuhu Yaqub, and Dr. Gboyega Ajayi, made the session a highly noteworthy one.

His Imperial Majesty, Oba Kiladejo, was appointed the 44th traditional ruler of the Ondo Kingdom in Nigeria on December 1, 2006, and was ceremonially crowned king on December 29, 2008. He is the eldest of twenty-two children born to Prince Gbadebo Adedoyin Kiladejo, the Edilokun of the Okuta Ruling House in Ondo City. Oba Kiladejo graduated from the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, with a B.Sc. in Health Sciences, a Bachelor of Medicine, and a Bachelor of Surgery. Subsequently, he went to the University of Liverpool to study Reproductive Health. After completing his National Youth Service Corps program, he started working for the Ondo State Health Management Board, eventually rising to the position of Medical Director. He left to start the Kiladejo Hospitals Group in Ikere Ekiti, then expanded into other businesses. For the past fifteen years, he has reigned as the king of the Ondo Kingdom and has immeasurably contributed to the state’s healthcare and economic growth.


Matriarchy and the Origin of Ondo Tradition

Though there are numerous tales of how the Ondo Kingdom came to be, His Imperial Majesty, Dr. Kiladejo, answered Professor Oloruntoba-Oju’s question about the kingdom’s connection to Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba race. I will not interrupt the flow of the stories. According to the king:

There are diverse accounts of the origin of the Ondo Kingdom. One thing is, however, clear. All narratives link the origin of the Ondo Kingdom to the matriarchal monarch. Oba Pupupu, a female, was the first Osemawe and the only female paramount ruler. When it comes to the unique position of Ondo women in the society, this historical element of creation is instantly apparent. For the first time in the history of Yorubaland, the rulership of the Ondo kingdom was linked to a woman. This made the kingdom stand out in terms of dynasty formation. The Osemawe dynasty ruling in the Ondo Kingdom was not founded by a hunter or a warrior, not even a prince, as it happened in many settlements of Yorubaland. This circumstance and other developments created an impact on the place of women in the kingdom. In Ondo history and till the present day, women have held sensitive positions in the administration of the state, and they have significantly contributed to the development of the society.

The king continues: Many centuries ago, Oduduwa’s favorite wife, Olu, gave birth to a set of twins, a boy and a girl, and thus the Ondo kingdom was born. This was considered an abomination, which made the Oduduwa utter “esemare” (which means “these are abnormal children”). “Osemawe,” the royal title of the Ondo kingdom kinship, was born from this contraction. But because Olu was Oduduwa’s favorite wife, her life and those of her children were spared. Before they left, Oduduwa inscribed two ethnic marks on each twin’s cheeks to identify them. They were then given a beaded crown as a symbol of royalty and sent out of the palace with an entourage of chiefs, servants, warriors, and medical practitioners, all of whom were headed by a hunter named Ija. Akunara and Shora, two powerful chiefs, also accompanied Ija. They went around till they got to Igbo Ijama, where they could relax. The group remained at the location for some time before departing for Epe. At Epe, they were welcomed with open arms, and they lived there for many years.


However, after some years, they consulted the Ifa oracle about the following steps to take in their settlement journey. The oracle instructed the group to set forth and bring a yam stick (edo). They were to poke this yam stick into the ground as they travelled and settle anywhere the stick could not enter the ground. Eventually, they arrived at a particular place where they inserted the yam stick into the earth, and it did not enter. They exclaimed, “Edo du do!” (“the yam did not enter the soil”), and thus, they named the place Ode Ondo. When the migrants arrived in this land, they encountered the Oka, Ifore, and Udoko, who were the original inhabitants. The Udoko people put up a fight, but they were eventually defeated. As a result of the migrants’ perceived bravery, the locals swiftly surrounded them. This means that the Osemawe’s reign of kingship began when the migrants arrived in Ondo, and the indigenous people began to adopt their culture. Thus, Pupupu, the female twin, became the first Osemawe of Ondo.

The female monarch had her council of chiefs and ruled until power was transferred to someone else. The innate feminine traits and attitude of Oba Pupupu, especially her love of domestic chores, was so evident that she could not keep it in check even when deliberating on important state issues. For instance, she prioritized her interest in poultry above the affairs of the state.  After a consensus was reached, the chiefs decided that Oba Pupupu be replaced by her son, Airo (meaning replacement) and that women could no longer become the paramount ruler of the kingdom. However, the king’s mother was asked to settle in another community, and she was given the title, “L’Obun.” Men become kings and women the L’Obun. This incident became a sole factor in the transition from a matriarchal monarch to a patriarchal one.

Nonetheless, this move to a patriarchal monarchy resulted in the female occupying a new position in society. A princess from Oba Pupupu’s lineage becomes the L’Obun of Ondo Kingdom, while a prince from Oba Pupupu’s bloodline becomes the Osemawe. With the introduction of the L’Obun’s title, women became the economic leaders in society. In other words, the L’Obun did not only act concerning economic and marketing issues; she was also like a female king with her chiefs and council, just like the Osemawe. The L’Obun was also tasked with the proclamation of the newly installed Osemawe. However, the L’Obun had a certain level of designation, and she was in charge of the settlement of issues amongst women.


Women’s New Roles in Ondo Town  

Women are both mothers and real-life kingdom builders. The presence of a powerful chief, even a king, must be accompanied by the presence of his wife (wives, if more than one). In society, women take on the role of home builders and are responsible for instilling ethical values and discipline in their children. Women also take on the role of the nascent kingdom’s metaphorical mother. They are vital to community development.

The Osemawe explained the social and cultural significance of women in society. Women were given a special status, and in reality, they wielded tremendous power. The L’Obun, a female-only position founded following Pupupu’s rule, could mobilize women to make demands. As a result, women affected the kingdom’s decision-making and acted as a pressure group. The ability to influence decisions and determine the kingdom’s politics was bolstered by the role of women. Tagba, for example, used her position to sway the king’s and his council’s decisions. She was said to have exercised so much influence that she was able to free Ondo from the Benin Empire.

Also, women had significant responsibilities in installing a new chief and king in the Ondo Kingdom. The L’Obun performs the function of kingmaking by removing the beads from her neck and wearing it on the king’s neck. This becomes a symbolism of the mother-son transfer of power traceable to Oba Pupupu and her son, Airo. However, after the installation, the L’Obun is expected to leave the town and never to set eye on the king again. In the case of Oba Adesimbo Kiladejo, his L’Obun died days after his installation. During the installation rites, the chief or the king must have the ogbegba (the calabash carrier) present. The rites would not be complete without the presence of the ogbegba, who is usually the most senior (if there are more than one) wife of the person involved. This aspect of the installation focused on the role of women in society.

Ondo’s civilization was distinct in that it assigned specific roles to women, and as a result, women were powerful in all aspects of life in the kingdom.


Women and the Economy  

Women were also granted influence over society’s economies. By establishing the office of the L’Obun and appointing a woman as the head, the economic power of Ondo was subsequently placed in the hands of women. The L’Obun was the women leader and also the market leader. Women became active participants in establishing the Ondo kingdom in the genuine sense, though they obeyed the king. In other words, the L’Obun gained definitive authority over the kingdom’s economic activity. She had to give her permission before a new market could be constructed in any section of the kingdom, and she had to perform cleansing ceremonies for all markets to prosper. Since most of the markets were in rural locations, the L’Obun appeared to have some control over agricultural practices. She could authorize some commodities for sale.

Unlike many other towns in Yorubaland, women’s participation in agriculture increased significantly. In 1875, an Ondo Catechist, Charles N. Young, reported that farming was more prevalent among Ondo women than many other parts of the Yorubaland.

From the statement, it is clear that women did not only assist their husbands on the farms; they also owned farms. They had the right to plant vegetables in the ridges of yam heaps on farms, and they were entitled to a share of the profits. In turn, they contributed to the advancement of society. Women also became the followers of Aje (the wealth goddess) and the organizers of the markets in the kingdom. As a result, women in Ondo society were placed in a delicate position. In reality, these women’s economic activities influenced the lives of inhabitants and, in turn, the history of the Ondo Kingdom.


Religious Importance

Despite the well-organized patriarchy in the society, the roles played by women in religious activities influenced social interactions and left indelible marks on the community. In the Ondo Kingdom, the L’Obun was the priestess of the kingdom, performing various religious rites. Her function also bolstered her status as the chief priestess of Aje, the goddess of reproduction, wealth, and fertility. The inhabitants of Ondo were acutely aware of Aje’s importance in the destiny of the kingdom through reproduction and fertility. As a result, it was critical to worship and appease the goddess every year, which was usually done in November during the Aje festival. Two primary groups were actively involved in the Aje festival—first, the Ondo women, and then the Idoko priest-chiefs, one of Ondo’s autonomous groupings. It is worth noting that a successful observance of this festival was believed to bring a good year for the monarchy. Therefore, it was critical for women to actively participate in the Aje goddess’s propitiation for the community to remain peaceful and prosperous.

In addition, the L’Obun played an essential role in the Odun Moko, a ceremony that prohibited women from public activities. During this time, the priests in the kingdom would display powerful charms and magic. The risk of a woman dying or becoming barren if these priests looked at her during the festival justified the reverence for the day. However, because of the role she played on this day, the L’Obun was the only female allowed to walk freely. She would pray for the town’s prosperity and fertility, as well as bless the women. This L’Obun’s duty emphasizes the importance of women in reproduction, wealth, and fertility.

            Finally, the role of women in Ondo history and society is unique in the development of the kingdom. Women occupied an important position in society and were in charge of the economic sphere. The significance of women in the creation and development of Ode-Ondo cannot be overstated. Till today, women continue to play significant roles in the Ondo Kingdom, taking on essential responsibilities that have contributed to the growth and development of society.


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