Monday Lines (1) Ijebu and their Ojude Oba By Lasisi Olagunju

Persons who answer Ijebu typically party as hard as they work. They sweat out their heart to make money; they rock their money in ways that add value to their personal and group existence. Their pitch could be high, it could be mid or low; what they choose depends on what point they want to prove. In doing these, they skillfully walk the thin line of balanced responsibility. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo transited to immortality in May 1987, Fuji mega star, Kollington Ayinla, sang about Ijebu’s unmatchable ability to balance their acts. He said “the yams of the Ijebu are six. They sell two; they eat two. The remaining two they give to their gods (Isu méfà ni’su Ìjèbú/ Wón nta méjì; wón nje méji sí’kùn ara won/ Ó l’Órìsà tí wón nfi méjì t’ókù bo…”).


I find them a fascination. I am writing this not because I am Ijebu; I am not one of them. I am a proper Òyó-Yoòbá. Never poor players too; but we are a people who can be loud and subtle at the same time. My lineage is Ìlòkó, Erúmosá omo aj’óbalólele/ Tètù o j’óba l’óhùn èrò (offspring of forebears who never answered the king softly). If you think not speaking softly to the king should have consequences, it means you’ve not heard Oyo say: Màá wí, màá wí/ oba kìí mú òkorin (speak out, the king does not arrest the bard).


Malawians say “life is when you are together, alone you are an animal.” I don’t know if the Ijebu have an anthem – old or new. But I know their oríkì glides with their gait: Oni mi je nu’bu omo Olúweri/ Omo Aj’ebu j’osa de Igbobini/Omo As’ale jeje booni nobinren/A b’aya kun’le tititi (Rovers of the deep sea, offspring of Oluweri/ Rovers of deep waters as far as Igbobini/Whose forebear indulged concubines as if not married/Whereas his home is packed full of women). If you want more of this, my source, Ayinde Abimbola’s ‘Poets as Historians’ has the oríkì in full.


Flavour, the musician in his ‘Big Baller’ asks: “How much is money?” He goes on to assert that “it’s nothing.” Flavour has probably not met them – the Ijebu. They say they are money (Kékeré Ijebu owó/àgbà Ijebu owó). They are wealthy because they don’t walk alone; they bond, holding hands in life and in business. They band in dancing too. They lace their drumbeats with sèkèrè – the netted, rattling gourd which does not go on outings of shame. Their drums, in shrill and mellow tones, remind them of their forebears who had been spending dollars before the Oyinbo man arrived these shores. For them, it is “premium or nothing.” Their neighbours secretly envy them.


Three days after the Ileya festival last week, the Ijebu-Yoruba, home and abroad, staged their annual breathtaking Ojude Oba festival. Their paramount ruler, the Awujale, Oba Sikiru Adetona, aged and glorious, sat at the event receiving the tens of age-grade groups of his male and female ‘children’. Those ones, the ‘regbe-regbe’, gaily dressed, came around to pay homage to their oba. They do it every year and there is no sign that they will ever get tired of doing so. On horse backs there were ‘aristocrats’ said to be from warrior families in Ijebuland. Others from other illustrious and not so illustrious segments of the land staged their own acts in colours that dim the rainbow. People danced; horses pirouetted; the ground quaked.


They came out heavier this year than they ever did, and so heavy have been the reviews. There have been ‘disputes’ and ‘fights’ on several internet platforms on the event. Some question the ‘sanity’ and the ‘wisdom’ in spending so much just to show how wealthy a people are. Some of the critics insist Ojude Oba is nothing more than an annual display of ostentation and flamboyance. Some say they only come home to party, they don’t build factories and set up businesses at home; others say they should spend on renewing the rust of their city. I reacted in a Yoruba leaders’ WhatsApp group at the weekend that the bonding across age groups that we see yearly at Ojude Oba, to me, trumps all charges of ostentatious display of wealth.


I ask if the value of everything should be calculated in naira and kobo, brick and mortar? One of the greatest bequests of Ancient Greece to the modern world is their art – their drama and festivals. But the drama and festival-loving Greeks were sternly rebuked for investing generously in these ‘wasteful’ items of art. Read David Pritchar’s ‘Costing Festivals’. Pioneer economic historian, August Boeckh, attacked Athenians for “squandering away public revenue in shows and banquets…” Plutarch accused third-century Athenians of spending more on the production of tragedies (drama) than on the maintenance of their empire. Plutarch, in his ‘On the Glory of Athens’ wrote that: “If the cost of the production of each drama were reckoned, the Athenian people would appear to have spent more on the production of ‘Bacchaes’ and ‘Phoenician Women’ and ‘Oedipuses’ and the misfortunes of ‘Medeas and Electras’ than they did on maintaining their empire and fighting for their liberty against the Persian.”


If you are a critic of Ojude Oba and similar festivals, and you hold that Plutarch was right and Boeckh’s judgment justified, think of African literature in English without Greek texts: We have J.P. Clark’s ‘Song of a Goat’ adapted from the Greek’s ‘Agamemnon’ which was authored by Aeschylus. We have Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Bacchae of Euripides’ which has Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ as its source text. Ola Rotimi’s ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’ is rooted in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Felix Budelmann’s ‘Greek Tragedies in West African Adaptations’ has a long list of this class of works. Even, ordinarily arrogant western cultures have no problem admitting that Greek tragedies are part of their cultural heritage. Yet, there was a time when expenditures by Ancient Greece on the arts were termed wasteful and thoughtless. One day soon in the future, glamorous Ojude Oba and the other festivals that we pillory today will serve as the cornerstone of our cultural economy.


Ojude Oba started as an extension of the annual Muslim sallah celebrations. Today, it has evolved into a massive secular event so much that even insular Christian Pentecostals soak their souls in it. It should be an applause for that festival that ‘pious’ Christians who won’t eat sallah meat on Sunday saw nothing wrong feasting with Muslims on Tuesday.


We yearly watch these united people going home to ‘display’ without fears. What they do annually is a proverb for other peoples who have abandoned their own hometowns to ‘witches’ and ‘wizards’. Such peoples should ask the Ijebu how is it that they go home and wine and dine and do not get eaten. Ojude Oba teaches a lesson in knowing that what kills is not death but the fear of death.


The Yoruba person ordinarily values home. And, to them, home is where the unbiblical cords and the placentas of a child’s ancestors are buried. You will understand this when you look at the Owu-Yoruba, for instance. Dispersed and scattered everywhere by an avoidable war 200 years ago (1821), they still spend their love on Orile Owu, their destroyed homestead located in present day Osun State. Someone once told me that M.K.O. Abiola, billionaire Egba-Gbagura man, remembered to plant his bookshop somewhere at Ojoo, Ibadan, where his Gbagura story started over two centuries ago.


Justice Kayode Eso (God bless his soul) was an Ijesa man who lived his years mainly in Ibadan. He once laughed at the ignorance of a friend who queried why he had a home in Ibadan, Oyo State, and another in his hometown, Ilesa, Osun State. The experience is captured in the Foreword he wrote in Lillian Trager’s ‘Yoruba Hometowns’ (2001: XI-XII). Justice Eso’s words speak better: “A friend, seeing the picture of my regular residence, was also shown the picture of my second home built in my local community. He could not resist asking why one should have two homes.” The late jurist recounted that experience while discussing questions raised by Trager’s American students on why the Yoruba have so much attachments to their hometowns. The questions, according to Trager, are: “Why do people who no longer live in a place, who may never have lived there, continue to spend their money and time there? What is the motivation for someone who may have an important job, who is well known and involved in urban organizations to come home to a small city or rural town or village?”


Around year 2000 or 2001 when Prince Tunde Ponle was building his MicCom Golf Hotels and Resort in his hometown, Ada, Osun State, I interviewed him and asked him if he did not think the investment could be a waste. He responded that one of his sons also expressed the same fears but his position was that if you have money and you refuse to develop your hometown, when you die, your corpse will be taken to that undeveloped place. I nodded. He looked at me and smiled and we switched to other issues.


My people say that if a child offends the sun outside, they should have the shade of home to run to (bí omodé bá d’áràn oòrùn, o ye kí ó rí ‘bòji ilé sá sí). We also say that a child who throws home away has erected a hanger for tribulation. One Ijesa person told Lillian Trager that “at present in Nigeria, the only place you have security, the only place you can be sure of, is your hometown. That is the place where you are known, and where people will protect you.”


People make money and willfully get lost abroad. But Ijebus do not have that problem of not going back home to celebrate their success and uplift their land. The physical celebration of that spirit is what we see annually in their Ojude Oba. The involvement of their big men and businesses, particularly Dr. Mike Adenuga and his Globacom in sponsoring the event since forever – and till eternity – attests to that spirit. There is no part of Nigeria without big men and women. The difference is in what difference they make in their people’s lives. Social scientists would insist that our federation’s constituent parts are states. Some would say they should be regions; yet, some stress that they are ethnic groups. I say they are communities built on what I.A. Akinjogbin conceptualized as the “ebi system.” When every elephant and every ant in every community take adequate care of the life of their home and of their community, we are likely to have a country.

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