Dr. Akinmayowa Akin-Otiko
Institute of African and Diaspora Studies, University of Lagos
On the 15th of January, 2024, I sat in the well decorated J.F. Ade Ajayi auditorium of the University of Lagos as Prof. Toyin Falola (TF) gave the ‘University of Lagos 54th Convocation Lecture’. There, Prof TF did what he has done in the last couple of decades. He always proposed ideas that, he believed, would bring about progress in whatever topic he was speaking. At this particular lecture, TF, made many recommendations. The ‘outstanding’ recommendation was the proposal for the creation of some departments that will help achieve among other things the decolonization of the research being done in Africa. He also recommended the creation of departments that will do research and award degrees in Witchcraft and Ifá. All of these creations, of course, would be done by the management of the University.
On the 18th of January 2024, precisely three days later, Prof TF, along with two other outstanding personalities, was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate Degree.
At that occasion, he was chosen to respond on behalf of the recipients. While giving his acceptance speech, he referenced the recommendations he made in his Convocation lecture. This he did in the context of the progress that Africans are making in the world of music, fashion and, of course, intellectual endeavour. As expected of any idea that is novel and uncommon, TF’s recommendations have generated different reactions, some of which I consider well thought-out, and some others, I consider as merely justifying the call for the creation of these uncommon departments. I have decided to add my ‘tóró (coin – thoughts) to the discussion. This piece addresses two things: first the context within which the recommendations were made, and second the actual relevance of the recommendations made.
Photo: Dr. Akinmayowa Akin-Otiko
With regard to the context, I am delighted that this recommendation was made in a university, which is “a higher learning institution that brings men and women to a high level of intellectual development in the arts and science, and in the traditional professional disciplines, and promotes high-level research.” It also pleases me to note that these recommendations were in the context of decolonization. Before I became a student of Ifá, ALL I knew, and thought about Ifá and the custodians (Babaláwos)of this body of knowledge, were solely defined by the Nollywood content and the opinions found on the pages of newspapers. I feared them, disdained them, and distanced myself from them because I was told that they are EVIL. After I became a student of Ifá, I realized the depth of knowledge that is hidden in the corpus. I have written books and articles around the subject of Ifá, and there is still so much more to be written.
Notably, people who understand the workings of the university have not bothered so much about Toyin Falola’s recommendations, probably because the recommendations were not made in a village meeting, but in a university setting, where rigorous procedures are followed before the setting up of a department. If, and when such a department is thought to be relevant and needed, the National Universities Commission (NUC), which is the regulatory body for university education in Nigeria, will crosscheck to know its viability, the capability of the said university to run such programmes. Therefore , nobody should lose any sleep wondering whether TF’s recommendations will be smuggled into the system or not.
The second issue is the question of relevance. Are the recommendations of Prof. Toyin Falola relevant today? I grew up in a very strong Christian and Catholic home (even if I am the one saying so), and my father shielded us (his children) from traditional things. According to him, he knew them so well, but found Christianity a better alternative. I do not question his choice. He trained and brought us up in the way he loved, which is Catholicism. I have enjoyed being a Catholic all the way, and I have no plans to change.
Along the way, I became a student of Ifá, and today, I am, out of curiosity, a committed researcher in this area. I desired to know what my father shielded us away from, and I am indeed grateful that I did. I am constantly confronted with questions like ‘what exactly are you looking for in that research space as a Catholic priest?’ Some others would also ask ‘how many Babaláwo have you converted? I am therefore not surprised at the different reactions that have trailed the recommendations of Prof Toyin Falola. As it is said in local parlance ‘what an elder sees sitting down, many children will not see even when they climb the tree’.
Research has shown that many Nigerians and indeed Africans (especially the young ones), are returning to traditional practices, and this includes young Muslims and Christians (Akin-Otiko, & Abbas, 2019:27). This return is not structured, and not well captured in data. This is an indication of a problem that must be investigated. It provides an immediate relevance for the recommendation to establish the department of Ifá. Universities are meant to create departments that will study and respond to emerging phenomena.
History has shown that most of what is known about Africans were written and handed over to Africans by the OTHER. If Africans must decolonize, they must be able to create institutions, and not only departments, that will respond to emerging African phenomena. If the department of Ifá will respond to making the narratives that will emerge from research about African phenomenon come from Africans and not from OTHERS, why not? In other spaces (what is referred to as developed), higher institutions and departments are developed to respond to phenomena that will either explain or advance the lot of a society. If this is the case, where else can this phenomenon be engaged with in a systematic way if not the University?
Some of the responses that I have read only reaffirm the need for the creation of departments that will engage African realities in dispassionate research. And so, I cannot agree more with Toyin Falola that these departments should be created. Such departments will become places where people, who have little or no knowledge about African realities, can go to, for either a full degree or short courses for better information. I have come to realize that many are very enlightened in the education from the West and know only what colonizers wrote and taught them about Africa. Many are still stuck with the idea that everything different from the religions that were brought to Africa is evil, and many things that are Africans need to be thrown away. It is time to see things in a different way. Studying them in the University does not necessarily mean that one must practice them as religion.
To understand the recommendations of Professor Falola, there is a need to make a distinction between Ifá as a corpus (body) of knowledge, that scholars (Abimbola, 1975, Jegede, 2010, etc.) have acknowledged, and the aspect of Ifá that guides religious practices. Ifá as a body of knowledge contains the narrative about how the world was made, the nature of things in existence, what is to be known about God and nature, religious instructions for those that believe in it and follow it, etc. Scholars have also noted that Ifá as a body of knowledge contains philosophy, economics, anthropology, medicine, morality, etc. These are what departments will focus on. This distinction should help those who are afraid of Ifá because of what their religious leaders have told them. Ifá as a corpus is a whole lot bigger than religion, although it contains religion.
During this time as a researcher, I have worked with Muslim scholars who do research in Christianity, just as I have met Christian scholars doing research in Islam. Why, then, are people worried about the call to begin a department of Ifá? A quick answer will be so that students will not be converted to the practice and belief found in Ifá. Should they not push for scholarship in Ifá in order to provide answers to the rapid unfolding drift to traditional life and religion that Africa is experiencing today? More than ever, I realize that because people only have the knowledge of tradition available to them through Nollywood or what they have been told by their religious leaders, it is urgent to establish departments that will provide scholarship in the African worldview.
For those that are worried, the call should be a welcome challenge to finally learn about what people thought was shrouded in mystery. As I conclude, it is important to say that there are two possible outcomes, if and when the department of Ifá is established: first, the department will die almost as quickly as it was established because people will then see that they are esoteric and not needed. Or second, it will open many more to indigenous education and theories that will suit and fit the true African context. As I conclude, for those that do not know, the religious aspect of Ifá has been taught under African Traditional Religion (ATR) for decades and it has created a stronger foundation for comparative studies. If TF’s recommended departments are established, they will afford Africans the opportunity to take charge of their stories and tell them as Africans.
Do you know what Ifá says about idolatry? Quoting Sophie Oluwole, Ifá says:
A ò lè gbé igi ní’gbó, kí ó di olówó eni
(we cannot carve wood in the forest, for it to become one’s boss).
(Ifá is king)
(divinities are worship)
Olódùmarè nìkan ló tó gbékèlé
(only God should one trust wholeheartedly) (translations are mine).
Imagine the information that can be developed in the Ifá department.
Akinmayowa Akin-Otiko, & Aremu Rahman Abbas, “Return to African Traditional Religion after conversion to Christianity or Islam: Patronage of culture or religious conversion?,” Ilorin Journal of Religious Studies. 9, no. 1 (2019):27-36.