Heart of Arts

Toyin Falola and His Convocation Lecture at UNILAG, Part 1

                A great voice generates a strong reaction even when he coughs. A speech that lasted under an hour has provoked tremendous reactions. We are also dealing with a scholar who does not respond to comments or criticisms. In the first part of this response, I want to focus on what I call “Between Theoretical and Practical Study of Ifa and Witchcraft.”

In examining the significance of what is described as Toyin Falola’s revolutionary suggestions at the 54th convocation ceremony at the University of Lagos that the Yoruba knowledge and divination system Ifa as well as witchcraft be more vigorously studied in Nigerian universities, taking better advantage of systems of knowledge developed by Africans, its vital to distinguish between different ways of studying a subject, particularly Ifa and witchcraft.

I don’t know if Falola did this, since I’m yet to see the reference to Ifa and witchcraft in the version of the published convocation address, I have read and would like to be directed to a record of it that has those references. I’m aware, though, that Falola has been expressing such ideas for some time, as in his “Ritual Archives”.

Falola is making a central distinction between theoretical and practical study. Ifa is already studied in theoretical terms in the academy. This involves the investigation of the subject from the perspective of an outsider, a person examining it without practicing it. Its practical study takes place outside academic institutions, often through the relationships between babalawo-adept in the esoteric knowledge of Ifa, and omo-awo-entrant into Ifa esoteric knowledge, through which this training is traditionally carried out, although self-training has also been developed outside the traditional context, as in the work of Jaap Verdjuin.

      Practical Study of Ifa Without  Identifying with its Spiritual Culture

Is it possible to expand these categories, so they feed each other?

Could there be ways of practising Ifa that are different from the conventional approaches centred in divination and ritual and therefore more in keeping with the intellectually centred approaches that define the academy?

Could theoretical constructs and investigative strategies be cultivated from Ifa study that could be adapted to other disciplines?

Could Ifa’s verbal and artistic repertoire be inspirational for the development of styles of verbal and artistic creativity?

Could Ifa herbalogy inspire exploration of herbal techniques, assessing their value for a broad range of phenomena?

Would such investigations imply that one identifies with the spiritual and even philosophical foundations of Ifa, thereby participating in its spiritual universe? Not necessarily.

I think Ifa hermeneutics, theories and approaches to knowledge observed in Ifa or developed from Ifa, are open to being constructed and applied without adherence to Ifa’s spiritual orientations as aspirations to gaining access to divine intelligence.

        Practical and Critical Explorations of Ifa in its Spiritual Context

For those interested in the traditional practice of Ifa, its conventional methods of study, of its enabling ideas and in putting these ideas into practice in divination, herbalogy and other Ifa practices, of what significance could the academic context be?

          The Critical and Balanced Use of Diverse Cognitive Faculties 

I understand the core of the Western academy, the world’s dominant educational system, the system Falola is suggesting should be modified by Africans and others to accommodate a multiplicity of approaches to knowledge, to be a critical relationship with knowledge, a refusal to take anything for granted, but to probe everything about it, in order to understand its constitution, its validity and its place within the evolving understanding of the universe of knowledge.

That implies, for me, that a student of Ifa as a practical system would not take for granted the ideas and practices he or she is presented with or engages in but subject them to critical analysis.

Such analysis would be intellectual, perhaps experiential, possibly emotional and even intuitive, mobilizing the complete spectrum of human cognitive capacity in terms of the relative significance of these various faculties in relation to the subject in question, ultimately subsumed under the critical use of the intellect, not as final determinant but as representing the ability to hold varied cognitive orientations in balance.

Babatunde Lawal’s summation of Yoruba epistemology in “Representing the Self and it’s Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art”, may be interpreted as a template for such cognitive relationships, indicating relationships between physical vision, critical analysis,  imagination, extra-sensory perception and beyond, the spectrum of possibilities constituted by the Yoruba terms “oju lasan” and “oju inu”, basic and inward, penetrative perception.

           Critical Examination of Ifa Applications 

Ifa is directed at providing answers to human queries in ways described as going beyond conventional human cognitive ability.

How effective are its methods?

How can such a subject be explored?

By studying divination sessions, questioning the diviner and the client in ways that facilitate discovery of how helpful the divination is?

By undergoing divination oneself and analyzing the relevance of the outcome?

By learning how to divine and making these inquiries from the perspective of a practitioner?

Theoretical and Practical Study of Witchcraft in Western and African Contexts 

Having made a preliminary statement on theoretical and practical study in Ifa, with the intention of returning to the subject to expand on it, particular the first part, on Ifa study and practice without identifying with its spiritual culture, I proceed to the idea of studying witchcraft in the academy.


     Differences between Witchcraft as Understood in the West and in Africa

The theoretical study of witchcraft, in relation to Africa, the West and other parts of the world, has long been a part of Western discourse.

Its also possible now, and is perhaps already undergone, to engage the practical study of witchcraft in an academic context, in relation to modern Western witchcraft.

Is modern Western witchcraft, however, similar to contemporary African perceptions of witchcraft? No.

Modern Western witchcraft, like Ifa, is a system of knowledge, a structured body of ideas about the nature of the universe and how to relate with it.

This knowledge is represented by a body of texts demonstrating these ideas and a collection of tools for their implementation.

     Possibilities of Systemization and  Application in Yoruba Aje and Iyami Discourse 

I am not aware of such clarity and systemization in African ideas about witchcraft. Such clarity and systemization represent potential in ideas about Aje and Iyami, the closest Yoruba equivalent to the English term witchcraft, but I am not aware of the integration of these ideas and their application in practice in Yorubaland, such initiatives being associated more with Yoruba spiritualities as practised in the US, on account of the combination of awe,  dread and careful distance with which Aje and Iyami beliefs are addressed in Yorubaland, contrasting with the Diaspora recognition of the potential of these ideas as a female centred spirituality unifying human beings and deity beliefs as participating in a unified divine identity as represented by the famous ese ifa, Ifa story, stating that “(the deity)  Oshun is aje, as all women are aje”.

      The Emergence of Modern Western Witchcraft

Gerald Gardner initiated Wicca, the first development of modern Western witchcraft, in the early 20th century when England repealed its laws against calling anyone a witch or calling oneself a witch, a means of stemming the destruction, often directed against women, ensuing from uncritical witchcraft beliefs, often unsubstantiated and inadequately analysed, if at all, akin to those now prevalent in Africa.

Gardner developed a body of ideas and techniques of application and published them in various books for everyone to read, building a coven of interested people to practice these rituals. Thus, was born modern Western witchcraft, its genealogy extending from Gardner to others such as Doreen Valiante, and many more, as the religion haz grown in membership and variety across Europe, North America and online.

     Can Explicit Witchcraft Practices and Ideas be Identified in Africa?

What would it take to identify explicit witchcraft practices and witches in Africa?

By studying such a person as Benin City’s High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon, who has long described himself as a witch and even offered to carry journalists along to a global witchcraft meeting in Benin he announced some years ago?

Through discussing with those, such as Benin babalawo David Ebengho, who describes himself as dialoguing with azen as named in Benin, the Powers of the Night, as he calls them?

By seeking out these figures oneself, perhaps by keeping vigil in environments they are believed to frequent, such as particular iroko and okhan trees, as understood in Benin and their counterparts in other places?

     Developing Modern African Witchcraft

US philosopher David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensous has been impactful in presenting the integration of various cognitive faculties in exploring ideas about the nature of the universe that go beyond the conventional understanding of the intellect and the senses but are not limited to faith.

Is such expansive and yet critical exploration possible for African witchcraft ideas?

Could these ideas be integrated, systematized and applied, even at a more modest level than the often large claims made for African witches, but nevertheless constructing a credible system of knowledge and practice, as Gardner did with Wicca?

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