African and African Diaspora Studies Department
University of Texas at Austin
United States of America
This essay will study how the Yorùbá conceptualize “ọ̀tá” or the enemy, a trope that recurs in various cultural phenomena such as music, prayers, and other social rituals. The Yorùbá worldview of the enemy has profound implications on the way they frame issues that affect their mental, physical, social, and general well-being. Health studies, religious studies, and social ethics studies and analyses have mostly tried to investigate the enemy as a concept borne out of Yorùbá cosmology which serves as a conduit for superstition, fear, and other seemingly irrational behavior. In this essay, I frame the concept of “ọ̀tá” through the theatrical dialectic of antagonist/protagonist theory. The enemy, I argue, is the way the Yorùbá metaphorize all kinds of antagonism—material and immaterial ones—into an imaginative texture that gives it the tangibility they need to triumph against those situations. This essay will interrogate how this personification of antagonism is achieved by studying Ifá texts, Yorùbá popular music of a period, and contemporary Pentecostal prayers.
Keywords: Ọt̀ á, Pentecostalism, Yorùbá popular music, Prayers, Identity
Once, on a trip to Ibadan from Lagos, I waited with some others in a commercial vehicle for the motor park touts to draw enough passengers, so we could begin our journey. As is typical of Nigerian motor parks, that interval is filled with various economic activities that purport to exchange the boredom and rising impatience of waiting with mercantilist activities that range from the sales of food to books, and to even prayers. The latter is usually offered by both beggars soliciting alms, and religious merchants who solicit donations. On this occasion, I counted about three vendors offering to sell me different materials—books, CDs, and other paraphernalia of prayer—that provided solutions that would give me victory over my enemies. The books document various kinds of enemies one might have, and how to conquer them through prayers that, I noted, were not always clearly demarcated as either Islamic or Christian. I ran through the pages of the books and wondered, beyond self-protection and spiritual defense against supernatural power, what other factors are responsible for the prevalent and persistent fear of the enemy among Yorùbá people? In daily conversations, and during rituals of prayer both inside and outside designated religious worship spaces in Yorùbáland, the palpable fear of the enemy provokes creative agency such that people continuously invent thoughts, imaginations, and rites to ward off the activities of those ubiquitous enemies.
The phenomenon is not limited to religious literature. Pull up an album of a Yorùbá musician of the older generation on YouTube and it is very likely the singer will eventually “throw shade” at their ọ̀tá—enemies—that stand in the way of his/her self-realization; those people “out there” who cannot stand to see him/her prosper. The musician will sing about how those enemies tried to scuttle his/her destiny; how those enemies visited Babaláwo or co-opted other malevolent forces to drag them down spiritually; how those Babaláwo that their enemies consulted requested them to procure expensive materials for the spiritual rites that will set off transcendent powers that will topple the singer’s rising destiny. These narrations within the songs are sometimes told in such detail as if the musician were a witness to the transaction, and they sometimes take the form of linear narratives that conclude with the singer’s victory. These artists, by the way, hardly ever portray themselves as helpless or passive victims of their enemies; they sing about vanquishing those enemies and emerging triumphant.
The fear of the enemy is pervasive among Yorùbá people, and this is because, in Yorùbá cosmology, the material and the immaterial worlds are mutually porous. People believe that there are ever-present contending forces that relentlessly contest one’s good destiny that was prenatally bequeathed by benevolent heavenly forces. The average Yorùbá, thus socialized into the culture of fear of unseen yet bitter antagonistic powers that live in the metaphysical realms and the catacombs of the imagination, is ever wary of the enemy whose mission it is to deprive them of their destiny (Agwuele, 2016). Yorùbá people imagine their enemies as human antagonists, disembodied beings who take human forms to be able to enter the material world, and also, hostile non-human forces, all of whom are antithetical to one’s well-being (Alanamu, 2013). This specter of marauding supernatural forces coming with their armies to shortchange one’s salubrious existence is intrinsic to Yorùbá belief (Adamo, 2009; Jegede, 2009).
These enemies, it is believed, exist either within or outside of one’s household. They are also thought to stalk one’s ancestral lineage, although what marks their power to prevail over one is not their spatial location per se but their ability to remotely surveil one’s life from their vantage spots in the supernatural realm (Adelakun, 2018). When those enemies witness a favorable turn of fortune in the lives of their victim, they launch a spiritual attack to cripple his/her destiny. People are thus urged to be ever vigilant, to be sensitive to the enemy lurking out there in the dark crevices of the human hearts and who do not want others to prosper. The constant drive towards the awareness of the enemy and its capability towards mischief drives Yorùbá people to an obsession with their enemy. This fixation manifests in virtually every cultural expression which includes popular culture, spiritual rites, and preparation of various fetish items that can be used as forms of self-defense (Borokini and Lawal, 2014; Dopamu, 2014; Lawal, 1977; Osinulu, 2008). Over time, Yorùbá people have also built up a repertoire of thoughts, imaginations, imageries, and mode of expressions that convey the urgency of exorcizing the enemy that wants to harm one’s providence.
Taking off from Rene Descartes’ philosophical proposition, I think, therefore I am, this essay will argue that the very imagination—and perhaps, the reality—of having an enemy is an integral part of self-making, self-definition, and self-perception for the Yorùbá people. The ways they image their enemy, and use language as means of framing the actions and the schemes of those enemies, gives the supposed enemy—an intangible entity—a material texture that also makes them conquerable. The omnipresent enemy, in Yorùbá cosmology, is not always either readily identifiable or embodied, and thus people use language and imagination to turn that enemy into a being. While formulating the image of the enemy or enemies that are united in hatred against them, they also end up generating an enhanced image of themselves, which is principally because they conceive the enemy in relation to themselves.
This essay investigates the underlying dramatics of the Yorùbá fascination with the enemy by examining some aspects of Yorùbá popular cultural performances such as music and prayer. I have chosen these specific artistic expressions because they vocalize and amplify Yorùbá philosophy through performances of everyday life. The legibility of these cultural performances to other Yorùbá people underscores underlying indigenous thought and philosophy. Yorùbá people have an inventory of ọ̀tá whose sole mission is to trap them in various ways, and they also, not wanting to become victims, have the counter mission of unmasking, defeating, and ultimately destroying those enemies (Oyetade, 2004). Much more than the task of self-preservation, however, is the self-aggrandizement that underwrites their thematization of the enemy. These instances from popular religion and culture vividly illustrate the Yorùbá conception of the enemy and its percolation into every segment of cultural expression.
As the examples I will analyze also demonstrate, when Yorùbá people incessantly visualize what the enemy is doing against them, they are diagnosing its intent and applying different forms of therapy to vanquish that enemy, either as a preemptive attack or as a form of self-defense. However, without that imagined enemy hating and antagonizing them, there would also not be a them against which their persona is shaped. Therefore, the idea of who the enemy is, what the enemy does, and how they counteract such an enemy is a series of dramatic acts scripted in their mind and which, when vocalized, rises to the level of a theatrical spectacle. An old Yorùbá proverb says, “whoever is alive but has no enemy is already dead” (Ẹni tí ó wà láyé tí kò lọ́tàá ti kú). This suggests that the I am of Yorùbá being relies also on the existence of the enemy, the antagonizing other, whose hatred is necessary for the cultivation of their impression of themselves. For instance, a Yorùbá proverb says that as a woman with children is an enemy of a barren woman, so is a hard-working person the enemy of a lazy one (abiyamọ, ọ̀tá àgàn; ṣiṣẹ́ ṣiṣẹ́, ọ̀tá ọ̀lẹ). In this context, the identity of a woman who has children is tied to that of the woman who does not. The identity of the woman with children is shaped by her opposite—the proverbial barren woman—who is usually stereotypically depicted as bitter and hostile to the woman whom fortune has blessed with children. In other words, the mother, the abiyamọ identity, is sealed through the other, the barren woman. As I will be showing with examples in the following sections, this identity creation process also reveals how their self-perception is tied to how they formulate the image of the enemy they want to destroy.
Defining the Enemy
Scholarship that examines the Yorùbá conception of the enemy has gauged the ingrained belief about the omnipresence of the enemy from various dimensions and concluded the different ways the Yorùbá conceive of the enemy.
They show how Yorùbá people believe the enemy is an etiological source of diverse illnesses, a perception that often hinders people with such beliefs from seeking western medical care (Jegede, 2002). According to Deji Ayegboyin (2009), Yorùbá people consider the evil and enmity of ọ̀tá to spring from visible and invisible sources, driven by twin forces—internal and external—and their sheer motivating factor is to wreck destinies and destroy people. Other scholars have also classified the categories of enemies that linger in the Yorùbá mind, delineating them according to the level of closeness to the person they antagonize (Agwuele, 2016; Adamo, 2015; Balogun, 2016). David Adamo, a scholar of religion and theology, also examined modern-day Christianity’s treatment of the enemy in rituals of prayers and the application of biblical utterances to agonistic situations. Adamo (2012; 2008), like Ayegboyin and others, also argues that imprecatory prayers in contemporary Nigerian churches are one of the means by which Christians wrest themselves from the hands of those negative forces they believe are out to destroy them to secure their destinies (Adedeji, 2012). Augustine Agwuele (2012) takes a linguistic approach to dissecting the Yorùbá psychology of enemies. He uses the term wọn, that is, “they,” to capture the sociological term that indexes the spiritual forces people believe contend with their personhood, their strivings towards a better life, and the good fortunes bestowed on them before their emergence in this world. Thus, wọn in the Yorùbá language catalogues the ever-present enemy, the opposing force that stymies the individual’s ability to enjoy the good things in life as guaranteed by his/her destiny. Through the constant invocation of wọn in Yorùbá, people remain vigilant and develop means of outwitting these forces. This “‘them,’ our enemies, can only be seen as a threat to our identity” (Frackowiak, 2016).
The Yorùbá define their impressions of the enemy in colorful terms to reflect the way they imagine such an enemy to operate, where they are located, and how they execute their overall mission in the life of their victim. Oyetade collects the descriptions of ọt̀ á according to the mischief that is ascribed to them:
ọ̀tá ilé—the enemy within one’s household
ọ̀tá òde—the enemy from the outside
ọ̀tá ìdílé—the enemy in the family or ancestral lineage
ọ̀tá ibi iṣé—the enemy at the place of work
ọ̀tá ọ̀run ò gbẹbọ—the enemy believed to be from heaven; one that can neither be appeased nor placated with sacrificial offerings.
ọ̀tá ìkọ̀kọ̀ tàbí ọ̀tá ìbábá—the secret or hidden enemy
ọ̀tá aloré—the persistent enemy
a bínú kú ẹni—one who is angry with another, and wishes death upon him/her
elénìní—the bitter enemy
a-mọni-ṣeni—one who exploits familiarity to do evil against another a-fàìmọni-ṣeni—one who is not too familiar with someone yet does evil against them
a-ṣeni-bání-dárò—the one who does evil against one, and still commiserates with one over that evil.
a-fojú-fẹ́ni-ma-fokàn-fẹ́ni—one who loves one superficially
ojú-la-rí-ọ̀rẹ́-ò-dénú—one whose love is not sincere
a-ṣe-kú-pani—one who schemes to inflict death (Oyetade 2004, 83).
While his list is not exhaustive, the classification helps to track how the Yorùbá use language to frame the operations of the enemy, so that they can galvanize the necessary hostility towards the enemy.
For all the varied enemies named above, Yorùbá people have developed supernatural means of counterattack. One of the ways they neutralize the effect of the power of the unrelenting enemy is through the power of language, particularly the spoken word. The use of language for this task is significant because, as James Baldwin (1955:175) once pointed out, “the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” Language is the semiotic form through which their fears, hopes, visions of conquest, and voyeuristic insights into the activities of the enemy are all documented. The language is evocative enough to give an almost perceptible texture to the enemy’s character and posit the embattled victim as the protagonist, and the enemy as their foil, the antagonist. The only possible denouement to their dramatic encounter is the fall of the enemy and they signify this in their words, either in daily communication, song lyrics, or prayers.
Apart from language, the image is also another resource that surrenders distance between what is known and what is not known. Image, Toni Morrison says, “increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, often contaminating knowledge. Provoking language or eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what we know and feel but also what we believe is worth knowing about what we feel” (Morrison: 2017, 36). Language and the images it generates thus help Yorùbá people to extract knowledge from the invisible realm to “explain, predict, and control” phenomena in the natural realm they dwell in, one in which they are threatened by enemy machinations (Wariboko, 2014:39). However, beyond categorizing the enemy to manage their activities, the Yorùbá also use their definitions of the enemy to shape their understanding of their own selves in relation to the enemy other, and ultimately enhance their own individual worlds through giving materiality to the enemy through language. In the next section, through copious examples from popular culture and prayers from Christian religious materials, I will explain the dynamics of Yorùbá thought regarding the enemy.
The Enemy Whose Hatred Makes Me
Long before the term “fake news” gained political traction and became supercharged language for describing malicious media reports, Nigeria had had its share of rumor reporting: the promotion of false and unsubstantiated accounts in the media and through word of mouth. One of the rather frequent victims of the fake news industry was popular Fuji musician Kolawole Ayinla, whose stage name was Kollington.1 Kollington would release an album after the propagation of the rumor of his death to debunk the news of his death, and to send a message to his enemies who wanted him dead at all costs. Popular music contains narration, and the mode of narration offers an important element in the interpretation of the work (Nicholls, 2007). When Kollington seizes the chance to provide a counter narration against his traducers, he does much more than just informing the public. In one of the albums I selected, Ojú Ọpọ́n, he responded to his enemies and rumor mongers thus:
Òkìkí kàn dé gbogbo Nàìjíríà
Kọ́láwọlé ò kú, irọ́ yin, Kọ́láwọlé ò kú
Bẹ́ẹ bá dé Àgbàdo, ẹ ó rí i tó ń j’ayé ọba Ohun tó bá wù yín ẹ sọ, ohun bá wú yín ẹ sọ Kò ṣẹ̀ṣẹ̀ bẹ̀rẹ̀ i ̀yẹn ò ṣẹ̀ṣẹ̀ bẹ̀rẹ̀
Ẹ ti sọ iru ẹ̀ nígbà kan, ohun bá wù yín ẹ sọ
Àyìnlá ò ní yàn kú, màá dàgbà, màá ní n t’ágbà á ní lọ́wọ́ Gbogbo wa pátá ò ní yànkú, a ó dàgbà, ká ní n tágbà ní lọ́wọ́ Aṣeni ṣe ra ẹ̀, lèkélèké gbàr̀adá
Inú ń b’ẹ́yẹlé lásán
Ìbàjẹ́ ènìyàn, kò dáṣẹ́ Olúwa dúró
Wọ́n relé oní fá, relé oníṣègùn
Wọ́n ní kí wọ́n lọ gbàródan wá nítorí Kọ́lá
Iṣẹ́ Olúwa, ayé ẹ má tuwò
Mi ò rọ lọ́wọ́ rọ lẹ́sẹ̀, Àyìnlá irọ́ ló jasi
B’ọ́mọdé wá mi d’Ágbàdo, Àyìnlá, á bá mi nílé
Wọ́n rò pé mo kú, inú ọ̀tá ń dùn, wọ́n bá ra ewúrẹ́ wálé Orí ewúrẹ́ tí ẹ ń rì mọ́lẹ̀ á dá a yín lẹ́jọ́
1 For a discussion on Fuji music, see Barber and Waterman (1995).
Ayé ẹ má torí èmi Àyìnlá lọ jáwé síná;
Ẹ dákun ẹ má torí èmi Àyìnlá lọ jáwé síná
Bí a bá rí ẹni tí ó torí èmi Àyìnlá lọ jáwé síná,
Kò ní kú kò ní rùn, á dẹ̀ kàn máa gbáyé lásán.
Yó wulẹ̀ gbáyé lásán, yó wulẹ̀ gbáyé lásán.
Ẹ má mà gbé mi hánu o, ẹ gbé mií’lẹ̀ o
Ìgbà tá ò lọ sí Amẹríkà, àwọn kan ń bú wa o
Ìgbà tá a tún lọ sí Amẹríkà, àwọn kan bínú
Kí ni a ṣe máa táyé lọ́rùn, ẹ ṣàlàyé fún wa o
Ẹ má mà pá o, Ẹ má mà pa Há jì Kollington, kò ṣẹ̀ yín o…
The news reverberated throughout Nigeria
Kolawole did not die, you lie, Kolawole did not die
When you get to Alagbado, you will find him living like a king Whatever you like you can say, say what you will
It did not just start, it’s not new
You have said this before, say what you will
Ayinla will not die, I will grow older and have all that makes one’s elderly status revered
All of us will not die, we will all grow old and grow into an elderly status The person who tries to undo one, only undoes their own self
When the cattle egret displays its immaculate plumage
The pigeon envies for nothing
Bringing people to disrepute cannot stop the work of God
“They” consulted the oracle and the medicine man
“They” ran fruitless errands because of Kola
The work of God, you should not unravel it
I did not become paralyzed, Ayinla, it was all lies.
If a child comes to search for me in Agbado, they will find me at home. “They” thought I was dead, my enemy rejoiced, they bought a goat and brought it home
The head of the goat that you bury (for rituals) will judge you
People, do not because of me, Ayinla carry out evil machinations
Please do not do it because you hate me
If anyone should carry out evil designs against me,
He will neither die nor rot away, s/he will merely exist in the world
They will merely exist without living, they will merely exist without living Stop hanging me between your lips, drop me
When we have not gone to the United States, some people insulted us Now that we have gone to the United States, some are jealous
How do we satisfy the world, please explain to us?
Do not kill him, do not kill Alhaji Kollington, he has not offended you.
Ayé ń retí ẹlẹ́yà mi ò, wọ́n ń retí ẹlẹ́yà mi o, l’ó jojúmọ́ Wọ́n ti kóra wọn jọ o láti pẹ̀gàn mi
Wọ́n ní mi ò mọ̀ ju ilé adúrà l’ó jojúmọ́
Bí wọ́n rí mi l’ọ́nà ilé àdúrà, wọ́n á máa pẹ̀gàn mi Wọ́n á ní, ó tún ti ń lọ
Wọ́n á ní, oló jú rogodo bí iná ọkọ̀, olórí gbeske
Ẹ wá wò ó, oníranù, a jeyin awó. Ó tún ti ń lọ!
Wọ́n á tún máa bú mi pé, Bàbá àdúrà, rọra máa gbẹ́sẹ̀ o Èmi ná ń bá wí yẹn ò, Ọlọ́run mi.
Ṣe o wá má a wò mí ní ran?
Má jẹ kí ogun ayé bòmí mọlẹ̀
Jẹ k’ẹ́nu mi gbọ̀rọ̀ l’ó jú ọ̀tá mi
Jẹ́ n lè sọ fún wọn wí pé ìwọ nìkan lọba ńlá
Ló jú ẹlẹ́gàn, Baba pọ́n mi le
Ló jú wọn, dá kun, dá mi lọ́ lá lọ́ pọ̀ lopọ̀
Èyí ni mo fẹ́ o, Ọlọ́run mi
Dákun wá gbè mí ní jà
Nítorí wí pé, ìwo ni kì í dó jú ti ni.
“They” have bunched together to backbite about me
“They” say I do not know more than visit the house of prayer daily
When “they” see me on the way to the house of prayer, they begin to badmouth me
“They” say, “there he goes again!”
“They” say, his eyes are round like the car headlights, see his head!
Come and see the time waster, there, he goes again!
They also sneer at me thus: Man of prayer, walk majestically. I am the one they are talking about, my God!
Will you now just sit back and watch me humiliated?
Let my mouth also hold words in the company of my enemies Let me be able to show them that you are the great king Before their eyes, honor me
In their very presence, let me be greatly honored
This is what I want, dear Lord please be my advocate Because you are the one who never lets one be shamed
Like Kollington, Sunny Adé sets a narrative around his enemies, those who mock him, not only as a successful public figure and musical icon, but also for his devotion to God. He shares a detailed account of their mockery of him or his persona. Rather than targeting his enemies, Sunny Adé reports their persecution of him directly to God so He can vanquish them on his behalf. In formulating his enemies, Sunny Adé posits himself as the protagonist, one whose antagonists unabashedly humiliate, a meek person, yet a vessel so significant that his battles are taken over by God Himself. His lowliness is, however, not a consistent persona, it is a put on he needs to make a case against his enemies and appeal to God for vindication. The audience too, by singing along, gets a projected imagery of their selves as protagonists of their narrative.
Orí mi tó tayọ, ló yà ọ̀tá lẹ́nu o Ẹ̀dá mi tó tayọ ló ń jọ wón lójú Iṣé mi tó gbayì ló yọ ọ̀tá lẹ́nu
Orí mi tó sunwọ̀n ló n jọ wọ́n lójú Emi náà kọ́ o, Ọba Olúwa mà ni …ògá ògo ló bá mi ṣe…
Iná tí ẹ dá, kì í ṣe fún wa rárá
Ẹ k’ẹ́yẹ m’ọ́gbó, ẹ f’iná s’óko yíká Àkèré wọ’dò ẹ léẹ fẹ́ fi iná le jáde Ohun tí ò le bọ́sí i, òun lẹ̀ n ra’wó lé Ẹ lé wa títí, Olúwa ò fún-un yin ṣe
My good luck amazes them
None of this is me, it is the doing of the Lord the King
…the king of glory has done this for me…
The fire you lit, is not for us
You ambushed the bird; you trapped it by setting the farm on fire. The toad runs into the river, you want to use fire to draw it out All your machinations will be fruitless
You have hounded us; but God has frustrated your schemes
…I release my blessings from the hands of any dead relatives, in the name of Jesus
I withdraw my blessings from the hands of all dead enemies, in the name of Jesus
Every unfriendly friend, be exposed, in the name of Jesus…
I reject the plans and agenda of the enemies against my life, in the name of Jesus.
Let every weapon and evil design against me fail totally, in the name of Jesus…
I cancel the plans and the mark of the enemy upon my life, in the name of Jesus…
and subsequent imprecatory prayers are a common phenomenon in Yorùbá churches. However, in the case of the MFM, there is a lot more commentary on their mode of engaging the enemy—balancing beliefs, thoughts, and philosophy that are latent in Yorùbá cosmology with Judeo-Christian practices to offer contemporary Yorùbá people a familiar means of dealing with the problem of the enemy. What is often left out of the analyses, scholarly or otherwise, is how the MFM feeds its congregation with the ideas of who they are, what they mean in this world, and how to sustain that impression of themselves through the creation of an enemy—a foil—which they need to create to maintain the imaging of their own selves. The belief that the enemy is perennially in pursuit of them stimulates the feeling of being permanently embattled all their lives and that they—as children of God—have the duty to triumph, is an orientation and socialization process that forms their lifelong subjectivity. To be a member of a church that sees demonic activity and antagonism by the enemy in virtually every mundane human activity is to see oneself as constantly under siege from these forces. To consider oneself as always under siege ultimately enhances one’s perception of self-worth because it translates to one having a life, destiny, providence or good fortune that makes one attractive to contending forces. The irony is apparent: their enemy’s hatred and fear of the action the enemy will take against them convinces them of their worth.
This essay inquired as to why the fear of the enemy is so prevalent among Yorùbá people as it is expressed in their popular and religious cultures. This worldview has profound implications on the way Yorùbá people understand and articulate issues that affect their mental, physical, social, and general well-being. I, however, note that the demonstrable fear of the enemy among Yorùbá people also stimulates their creativity when they fashion ways of protecting themselves from those enemies. That way, Yorùbá people use an amalgam of language and imageries to imagine the faceless and formless enemy into a being that can be conquered. By looking at two aspects of Yorùbá culture—popular music and religion, I demonstrated that Yorùbá people also employ the image of the enemy they generate to build their own image as the protagonist of their life narration. This essay encourages that the Yorùbá conception of the enemy be viewed beyond tropes of superstition, fear, and other seemingly irrational behaviors for an understanding of self-making and identity formation.
1 For a discussion on Fuji music, see Barber and Waterman (1995).
2 The books are all published by the church, MFM, Lagos.
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