Abimbola Adelakun
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:

“Wọ́n” sọ pé mo kú, ariwo gba’yé
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…
“They” said I was dead, the noise well all over the world
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.
Kollington does not merely stop at providing news of his condition, he also uses the opportunity to magnify himself in several ways. First, he is a Yorùbá singer whose fandom and immense popularity are, for the most part, limited to the Southwestern part of Nigeria, where the Yorùbá people predominantly live. However, he uses his song to build a perception that extends the sphere of his cultural influence to the world, while treating his fame in Nigeria as a subset of a global one. Then he goes on to tell his followers that in his home in Alagbado, Lagos, he lives like a king. He shrugs off his enemies and undercuts their importance by stating that they could keep reporting whatever they choose about him, but he will only continue to succeed. He will live long and be conferred with an elderly status—which of course includes long life, prosperity, sound health, and integrity—and even though he did not state it explicitly, this wish would be executed by providence, to the chagrin of his enemies. He prays for his listeners too, wishing success for all of them. By doing so, he invites them into the position of the “self” that joins him to counter his “other.” Thus, when they echo the song or sing along with him, they momentarily occupy the space he has cleared as the besieged protagonist of the narration. When they sing the song, the lyrics and the beleaguered mood they generate helps them appropriate (and weaponize) the persona of the protagonist that the singer constructed.
Then, for the second part, Kollington begins to narrate the actions of his enemies. Like Agwuele stated, wọn in the Yorùbá language supposes an enemy—or groups of them—who are definitively summed up under a collective pronoun. In this instance, Kollington refers to those who are working endlessly to conspire against him as wọn, “them.” This “them” could be any number (and the more they are, the more important their victim is), and by stylizing them under the umbrella wọn, he lessens their facelessness. The wọn takes the enemy from being an amorphous group that exists in the mind of a paranoid Yorùbá person and turns them into an army of people motivated by nothing else than sheer hate. Kollington, like the average Yorùbá person who sums up his/her enemy under wọn conjures the image of a group of people who hate him for no other reason than that he has exceptionally succeeded in his career and they will go to any extent to ruin him. These people, he informs the audience, are so invested in crashing his shining star that they went on several errands, all of which have been fruitless because God was on his side. He goes on to accuse his enemies of not only going from one Babaláwo to the next, but they also carry out fetish rituals involving animal sacrifices which, in Yorùbá culture, have profound significances (Awolalu, 1973; Prince 1975; Zeitlin, 1966).
Beyond the summation of his enemies under wọn, there is also a graphic description of his enemies’ action against him. They do not just want him dead and scheme towards achieving this goal; they were so convinced that their mission had become accomplished. They presumed, Kollington accused, that he had become paralyzed and was dead. The said enemies did not wait for the news to break officially, they went to town with the news, and it so spread everywhere that his house was besieged by fans and well-wishers. For his Yorùbá audience who share a similar frame of cultural reference with him, these accusations and Kollington’s imagined reconstructions of the enemy action—going to Babaláwo and burying live animals as a ritual sacrifice—will resonate deeply. They are not likely to question whether he was a witness to the ritual activities carried out to ruin him; as Yorùbá people who collectively believe in the ubiquity of enemies, it just makes sense that some people would want to annihilate a well-known singer like Kollington and will invest useful resources to do so. The song not only resonates with them, it also gives them an armament against their own enemies and antagonizers. The song thus becomes imbued with a supernatural performative force, àṣẹ, (Jones, 2015) that is useful for speaking back to the ever-present transcendent power that might be working against them.
Through his narration of their actions, and his eventual triumph over them, Kollington achieved some things: drum up the scale of his cultural significance, establish that he was important enough as a cultural icon to warrant spiritual attacks, send subtle warning messages to anyone else who might not like him and wish him evil, pronounce judgment on his enemies, flaunt his immunity to their schemes to establish his spiritual dominance (and also that his own spiritual fortifiers were more powerful), and remind every listener that he had been to the United States (a status symbol at the time and which he sang about effusively in another album). Overall, Kollington marshals social, economic, spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic resources to build a narrative against his enemies to ultimately promote himself as a star and a musical icon. This is, of course, not to reduce Kollington’s songs about his enemies to a mere manipulation of the audience; the fear of the enemy that he evokes in the song is consonant with cultural beliefs. In recent media interviews, Kollington, though much older and semi-retired from singing, still expresses the same fear of enemies and spiritual attacks, thus confirming that his songs are a product of deeply embedded beliefs (Lawal 2017). As stated earlier, the fear of enemies’ scheme is an integral part of the Yorùbá imagination; people are always both on the defense against them and are also preemptive of their hatred. They channel their thoughts, words, and actions towards revoking whatever manipulation and mischief the enemy has going. Allan Moore suggests that in dissecting the audience’s listening to the singer’s narration, it is more helpful to not think of the singer as singing directly to the listener but to think of the singer as projecting a persona, an artifice that may or may not be congruent with reality (Moore, 2013). In the case of Kollington, he projects to his audience the persona of a renowned artist facing persecution just like other great people in history have done at some point.
However, countering the enemy is not always a reactionary effort or—as the example of Kollington showed—directed at the enemy and to the hearing of the audience. In some other instances, it is triangulated: directed at God against the enemy and to the hearing or witness of the audience. One example is King Sunny Adé’s jùjú music song, Ayé Ń Retí Ẹlẹ́yà, on his album, Odù.
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.
The world awaits my shame, daily they await my shame
“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.
In another of his songs, Get Up, Sunny Adé not only scripts the schemes of his enemy, he uses evocative language that will resonate with his Yorùbá-speaking audience:
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 joyful destiny surprises my enemy My joyful providence amazes them My honored career bothers my enemy
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
Sunny Adé’s narration of the “they” that haunts him might have religious undertones, but it is not necessarily religious. The more religious—and I daresay extreme—examples of Yorùbá people constructing their subjectivity and identity based on the hatred their enemy has for them would come from contemporary churches. In religious houses of all faiths, the Yorùbá beliefs about enemies form the armature of religious rituals such as prayers. From mosque to shrines, where traditional religious forms are practiced, to contemporary churches, especially those of Aládurà and Pentecostal traditions, people battle their enemies who they believe are in contention for their destinies. One of the churches best known for this is Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church (MFM), a church in southwest Nigeria founded by Dr. Daniel Olukoya, and devoted to unceasing prayer activities all year round (Asaju, 2010; Ugwueye and Uzuegbunam, 2013). For this essay, I reviewed at least a dozen of the books/pamphlets published by the church to analyze how they understand the enemy and how they position the enemy’s hatred in relation to themselves. The books are Prayer Passport to Crush Oppression (2006), Smite the Enemy (2013), Taking the Battle to the Enemy’s Gate (2011), Stop Them Before They Stop You (2009), When You are Knocked Down (2000), and Too Hot to Handle (2001).2
Each of the texts burrows into the deeply held fear among Yorùbá people that they are being surveilled by supernatural powers, that their destiny can be stolen, and that they have to wrestle their enemy continuously, so they do not fall prey to the enemy’s machinations. They are urged to pray unceasingly imprecatory prayers to destroy the enemy who is definitely in pursuit of them. Their ways of dealing with the enemy can be characterized—more or less—as an obsession because their prayers, worship, and other ritual activities are built around the enemy they want to destroy through imprecations. Scholarship has long investigated the problem of reconciling Christian ethics with the violence of imprecatory prayers, particularly ones that come with the book of Psalms (Adamo 2008; Butticci, 2013). Despite the ethical argument about loving one’s neighbor, churches suspend the religious injunction that urges them to love their enemies as themselves. Instead, they pray imprecatory prayers against them because they believe those enemies simply cannot be loved (Wariboko 2014).
In Nigeria, imprecatory prayers have become a fixture in many Aládurà churches but MFM took it up several notches higher by building their spiritual energy and industry around the enemy and their desire for victory over them. In one of the many anecdotes Olukoya shared about the enemy attacking the Christian, he gives a somewhat detailed picture of how the enemy operates against the Christian.
A brother once had a serious problem. Everything turned upside down in his life and he did not know what to do about the situation. He became confused and tired of living. However, God gave him a revelation after a session of aggressive prayer warfare. The Lord took him to a graveyard in his dream. An angel of God led him to a particular grave and smote it three times and asked the occupier of the grave to come out and hand over what he took from the brother when she was alive. The woman obeyed. That was how the brother collected from the wicked woman his virtue which was as good as forgotten. This brother’s example shows that you can recover your blessings from the grave even if the person that stole it died years ago (Olukoya).
At the end of the chapter, Olukoya offers the following prayer points to the reader:
…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…
This pattern—stories about enemy action and therapy through prayers— is repeated through the book and in fact, through his entire book collections. As earlier indicated, anecdotes about enemy schemes against one’s destiny
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.

Works Cited

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John Ayọtunde Iṣọla Bẹwaji
Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy, University of the West Indies,
Mona Campus, Jamaica


This essay deploys Yorùbá ontology, epistemology and axiology to construct a Yorùbá ecological philosophy, or ecosophy. It argues that in contrast with the Judeo-Christian tradition of environmental anthropomorphic domination as the destiny of humanity or American pragmatism which encourages no stable traditions of values but what conduces to desired ends, the Yorùbá value system is by far more advanced in being more eco-respecting, eco-friendly and geared toward sustainable human habitation in a world in which he/she constitutes one small fraction of sentience. The essay developed around the responses to the following questions: a) What are values? b) How are values derived? c) Are there Yorùbá values? d) What is the environment? e) How are concepts of the environment derived? f) What is the relationship between values and the environment? g) What is the relationship between Yorùbá values and the environment? h) What are the inferences these have for one-health approach to the environment and sustainable human global co-existence?

Keywords: Ecosophy, Values, Anthropomorphism, One-health approach, Environment


Yorùbá civilization is one of the most ancient, advanced, and urbanized in the world. Various forms of evidence have demonstrated this. Among these sources are the archaeological, anthropological, socio-politico-cultural engineering, leisure and entertainment engagements, linguistic-communal organizations, highly articulate and well-formulated epistemological, scientific and mathematical traditions, technological and pharmacological traditions, ontological and axiological traditions and the values that feed, nurture and derive from these accoutrements of highly advanced culture (Zaslavsky 1999). Because Yorùbá society is large, centralized in Western Nigeria, and diffused through various circumstances of dispersals and exigencies to other parts of Western and Central Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean, it is well-nigh impossible to annotate a homogenous value system; it will be trite to say such a diverse and highly civilized people would not have a homogenous value system. Hence, an awareness of this danger of presumed unanimity signals a caveat, that as much as even a small community of humans may display individual value variations, when it comes to large segments of humanity, indicating a common value system or tradition becomes even more challenging.

Having made this point, however, it is still significant that regardless of whether each and every individual member of the community embraces a particular or divergent value orientation, it is still meaningful to speak of a “common” value system from which most critical issues are understood, meaning made, and decisions effected, given historio-genesis and ancestral antecedents of peoples of the world. Our interest in this discussion is the appreciation of the overarching Yorùbá value system(s) in the natural relationships which members of Yorùbá society display in interacting with their environment writ large, with “environment” here being construed as natural, social, political, moral, cultural, jurisprudential, religious, etc. (Shyllon 1987). In this essay, we will use Yorùbá ontology, epistemology, and axiology to evince a Yorùbá ecosophy. In the process we will show that, in contrast with the Judeo-Christian tradition of environmental anthropomorphic domination as the destiny of humanity or American pragmatism which encourages no stable traditions of values but what conduces to desired ends, the Yorùbá value system is by far more advanced in being more eco-respecting, eco-friendly, and geared toward sustainable human habitation in a world in which he/she constitutes one small fraction of sentience. Our discussion will be developed as responses to the following questions: a) What are values? b) How are values derived? c) Are there Yorùbá values? d) What is the environment? e) How are concepts of the environment derived? f) What is the relationship between values and the environment? g) What is the relationship between Yorùbá values and the environment? and h) What inferences do these have for one health approach to the environment and sustainable human global co-existence?


In virtue of human gregariousness, physiological, psychological, and intellectual dispositions, it can be argued that values under-guard virtually all aspects of human existence. Interactions and modes of being are moderated by ideas, beliefs, suppositions, and expectations that are steeped in, and that create, notions of values. Values evolve in various ways, consciously or otherwise, to authenticate the processes of being. One may also contend that it is not just human beings who evolve values, but other primates or animals in nature, with the capacity for feeling and emotion, memory, and history, reason and intellectual traditions also develop value-like notions, which they find various ingenious ways to orchestrate and defend. What, then, are values?

The concept of “value”, on its face, derives from human appreciation of worth, importance, or utility of some/thing, where “something” or “thing” could stand for a being, an idea, a material or resource, a location, etc. To this end, “value” could be the concept used to describe those attributes, helping to annotate the regard the item deserves. To have value in the above sense is to be important, to be of worth and to be useful. But that is not all: to have value also could mean to be numerable, with potential for the quantity to have significance statistically, demographically, chronologically, symbolically, contextually, substantively or expressively. It may also mean the principles, ideologies, or standards by which one and one’s society/community lives, relates to others, makes decisions, or determines modes of existence. But “value” could also mean substitution cost or exchange equivalence or benefit derivable from a substance, item, or idea.

From these ideas it would seem clear that values suffuse and are integral to all aspects of existence and moderate inter and intra relationships between humans, animals, nature, and the uni/multiverse. They become refined and reified over time, thereby assisting in determining the modes of being which members of different societies exhibit. Values also tend to take on autonomous lives, as these require such independence to gain the kinds of traction that allow for various mechanisms of adjudication—praise, blame, reward, punishment, etc. These elements of values are manifested in the critical areas of decision making—for example, a culture built on the idea of divine providence—but often are obscured by the fact that in many instances the values are not explicitly formulated, humans may be too busy just living/surviving to have enough time to examine the metaphysical presuppositions that underlie the ways of being that make a people who they are.

Critical academic reflections about values belong in the area of philosophy called axiology, but the practical implications of the application of values often make urgent decision-making considerations to have a tendency to supersede theoretical constructions. For example, while pragmatism is a philosophy of being in the United States—no better evidence of this than the Trump regime in the White House—it is also a metaphysics of values, a mode of understanding the foundations of existence and construction of reality. Saying that philosophy considers value does not mean that other intellectual disciplines do not do so; for, the reason why these different areas command study is because they have enshrined in them cognitive or epistemic ideas, which are of interest to human beings intrinsically or instrumentally. To this end one can say that the humanities—including the social sciences, as well as the natural and applied sciences—are aimed at discovering intellectual secrets of nature, the environment, and reality. To this end, all human societies have made efforts to gain ideas, information, and knowledge regarding all aspects of existence. Life is the first area of value that humans have examined, but in doing this it has become clear that knowledge is probably the second most important of values that human beings have discovered.

Sources of Values

Circumstances of existence or coming about of societies differ, both in the environment of existence and contexts of survival. This means that different cultural handlers, as values, evolve and subsist to deal with exigencies of being. Apart from life and knowledge, humans value stability, and hence seek to enshrine values aimed at creating and maintaining standards of evaluation, which are conducive to the preservation of life in as best condition as possible, using the value of knowledge as tool. This translates into another value trope: power. Now, it must not be supposed that “power” means the ability to compel, force, subject, act upon, produce an effect, or influence that one thing/ being may have over other things/being. It may also manifest in the capacity to determine what individuals or groups have the freedom to even contemplate as truth, reality, or identity—as where some people decide their God is the real God and all other gods are fake, their educational system is genuine, while others are backward or unscientific (Gordon and Gordon 1997). Thus, “power” is valued intrinsically and extrinsically. To this end, it can be seen that values guide purposeful action, making human behavior superior, in many respects, to the behavior of other sentient beings in the world.

Value determines conditions of being and non-being, determining relationships as well as goal and processes. Values determine how we see what we see, what actions are worthy and how these are to be pursued. This is where historical factors play important roles in the engineering of values in society. The engineered values are then regarded as cultures: they are enshrined in the stories, theories, technologies, arts, educational systems, religious practices, patterns of relations (economic, political, filial, relaxation, sexual orientations) and numerous others for making peace, war, conflict management, etc. These values then assist in underwriting what society considers important to preserve, perpetuate by propagation or jettison by rejection or destruction.

The challenge of post-modern society is the Nietzschean/Trumpian trans-valuation of values—the seeming demise of human capacity to make meaning and have ideals, notions of right and wrong, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, proper and improper conjugal relations, etc. This is the element of fluidity that afflicts contemporary post-modern humanity in the face of scientific, technological, and globalization successes, making at the same time for the possibility of prolonging life on the individual level and destroying it wantonly at the mass level that has not been seen before. In a sense, what has happened to global humanity has been the capacity of segments of humanity to determine what would constitute values, not just for themselves, but for the rest of humanity. The historicizing of such capacities, through exclusionary narratives of exceptionalism, have meant that not just religious, but also ideological values are foisted on others either through the force of arms or a combination of educational and religious indoctrination. The factors of epistemicide and epistemic deficit in Africana societies have had the consequence of breeding a generation of Africans who doubt whether their ancestors ever had any values or capacities for such abstract constructs (Bewaji 2012). It has led to the Black Skin, White Mask (Fanon 1967) or double consciousness (Du Bois 1990) that plagues the African intellect and daily existence. The indignities that this has brought have been compounded by the double assault of poverty and ignorance of traditions to create the leverage for the destruction of indigenous knowledge systems in favor of pernicious imported fads and consumer items.

While it may be difficult to recoup or excavate old values, traditions, and beliefs, there is nothing stopping us from at least recognizing what was, evaluating it, and determining whether there is still any place in our existential circumstances to enable us to gain some benefits from the knowledge and possibly even from some modified application of those values, ideas and beliefs. It is this that has often encouraged my determination to never stop reflecting on and interrogating indigenous Yorùbá or African knowledge and metaphysical systems, even while detractors would ignorantly suggest that there is no such thing as Yorùbá values or knowledge; forgetting that it is only a difference of metaphor that prevents them from seeing that all knowledge is geo-culturally produced, deployed in a utilitarian fashion for other-possession or dispossession and metaphysically appropriated to mask the true purposes of such determination.

Sources of Yorùbá Values

The Western narrative of the origin of the universe is derived from an anthropocentric narrative found in Judeo-Christian scripture. It is found in the Book of Genesis, in the first four chapters.1 There the absoluteness of Yahweh is beyond reproach, creating the uni/multiverse by fiat of the spoken word and enthroning human beings as the master (masculine gender specifically) of all that there is in the universe. Within this narrative, the female was an afterthought, a product of Adam’s depression and lonesomeness. There may never have been any female had Adam been comfortable with himself—personally, mentally, emotionally, sexually, etc.

Now, this mythological fiat persists in various forms, but most virulently in individualism, which now masquerades as democratic capitalism; the attendant contradictions it purveys are the rationale for the fundamental retreat and decadence of Western morality and value system. For this reason, the Western value system must be apprehended through the metaphysics of individualism (especially the possessive, destructive, obsessive, recessive, and patently amoral form of individualism), which seeks the domination and destruction (to the point of mass killing of fellow human beings being described as collateral damage and of no serious consequence in the prosecution of desired self-enrichment goals of the capitalist) of nature and others, carrying in tow the degenerate embers of patriarchy and cultural immolation. This also explains how it is possible to distance moral discourse from real life existence, fashioning narratives which brook no ideas of permanence, responsibility, or virtue.

There can be no doubt that when this narrative was introduced to Yorùbá society, Yorùbá people would have been amazed that there are people who call themselves humans who embrace such values. But Yorùbá wisdom is tolerant, being a product of millennia of cosmopolitanism and advanced cultural engineering, which have produced the kinds of urbanization which visitors marveled at on first contact (Bewaji 2016). Granting the strange, unknown and remote the latitude to demonstrate, through practical actions and behavior, their own humanity, the Yorùbá , in sympathy with their European weather beaten, emaciated and clearly sickly-looking brothers and sisters, allowed them to visit, trade, learn and be civilized by the wealth of knowledge that was already part of the common fare in Yorùbáland. Probably this civilizational superiority was what conduced to the genteel accommodating manner of response to strange Western ideas, but which later resulted in the abuse of the generosity and humanity of the Yorùbá at the hands of the greedy white man, who reciprocated generosity with hostility, enslavement, and colonization.

One may wonder “how so?” Yorùbá creation ideas never arrogated to any Supreme Being, Eléduà ,̀ Olódùmarè or Olórun—or any other being—such contradictory, irreconcilable, and patently meaningless attributes. The structure of the cosmos, the uni/multiverse, and all that exists within it, was a product of not just one action carried out by one Supreme Being or beings, for obvious reasons. For someone to have carried out this process would have begged the questions: where was that being to begin the creation process? What was it/he/she made of? What language was used to create the uni/multiverse by fiat? How many such creations were undertaken, given the flawed experience of the biblical Garden of Eden? What image of God was used— Black, Chinese, Indian, Latino, White? Why didn’t the creator anticipate the depression of Adam if it/he/she was all-knowing? Yorùbá civilization never claimed to be the one and only civilization on earth, which was confirmed even more by interactions with peoples from other, strange lands and climes – they know that “if you travel far enough, you will find a hunchbacked squirrel” (àìrìn jìnnà ni kò jẹ́ a rí abuké ọ̀kẹŕ ẹ)́ .

In order to understand Yorùbá values, just like attempts to seriously understand the values of the United States, European values, Chinese values, or those of any other value system, one has to revisit, among others, the metaphysics/ontologies and epistemologies constructed by the people as explanations of reality, knowledge of reality, relationships, etc. That was the reason for which we revisited the Judeo-Christian foundations of Euro-American value foundations in order to be able to gain an appreciation of why, in my opinion, the Judeo-Christian, Arab-Islamic, Western humanity is constantly destructive, war mongering, and spiritually hollow. In terms of origins, for Yorùbá people, there are two prevalent traditions of how the world came to be and how Yorùbá people originated. According to Stride and Ifeka,
The traditional history of Oyo goes back to the founding of Ile-Ife, the primary dispersal centre of the Yoruba people. One tradition of origin is a mythical creation legend which intimates that the Yoruba were the original inhabitants of the Ife area. At the dawn of time, the world was a watery waste. On the orders of his father – the supreme god, Ọlọŕ un – Oduduwa climbed down a chain from the sky. He brought with him a handful of earth, a cockerel and a palm nut. He scattered the earth upon the water and it formed land at Ile-Ife. The cockerel dug a hole in which Oduduwa planted the palm nut and up sprang a mighty tree with sixteen branches, each the ruling family of an early Yoruba state. To this day Odùduwa’̀s chain is preserved among the sacred relics of the Yoruba (1971, 288–290).

There are various renditions of this story/myth of creation, where Òrìsànlá is substituted for Odùduwà: a rope is substituted for a chain, a pouchful for a handful of soil, and a pigeon for cockerel and the ubiquitous palm nut. But the constants are the agencies of Olódùmarè or Olórun, Òrìsànlá, or Odùduwà, a pigeon or cockerel, a palm nut, blending Divinity with deity/god/humanity, “lower” animals and plants in the process of creation, thereby providing a representation of all that is: supra-terrestrial, terrestrial, humans, animals, plants, and things. The significance of the multiagency collaboration in the creation (ní ig̀ bà ìwaś ẹ)̀ of what there is, will only become evident when we examine the nature of values in Yorùbá culture and how this determines relationships between supernatural beings, human beings, and all other things in nature.

According to Stride and Ifeka, Yorùbá people also have another story, a migratory one, depicting their understanding that they originated from somewhere:

Another tradition indicates that the Yoruba people were produced by inter-marriage between a small band of invaders from the savanna and the indigenous inhabitants of the forest. The story is that Oduduwa was the son of Lamurudu, sometimes described as a ruler from the East, sometimes as a prince of Mecca. When Islam was introduced into his homeland, Oduduwa refused to forsake the religion of his ancestors and he and his supporters were expelled from their native land. After long wanderings, they settled among the forest people and founded the state of Ife. Oduduwa had seven descendants. Some traditions say they were his sons; others call them grandsons. These seven young men moved out to found the ruling families in seven new Yoruba states. These were named as Oẁu, Sábe, Poṕo,́ Benin, Ìla,́ Ket́ u and Ọỳ ọ́ (ibid, 290).

Clearly, these myths of origin are also rich in culture, civilization, humanity and values. They indicate a people who, even in the face of colonization and cultural emasculation, still value their indigenous culture, and who are not reticent to embracing new ideas from others, but who abhor being compelled to accept orthodoxies that are incomprehensible, internally incoherent, or patently absurd—they would characterize Islam as im̀ ọ̀le/im̀ ọ̀ líle (literally, hard knowledge), and various Christian denominations such as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal Christ Apostolic, and Celestial churches as ìjọ onit́ ẹ̀bomi, ìjọ elétò, ìjọ ag̀ ùda,̀ ìjọ alákatakit́ i,́ and ìjọ gbaŕ ayílẹ,̀ respectively. Regardless of our author’s mischaracterizing the stories as legends, by comparison with how Judeo-Christian education has taught its adherents to see Genesis in the Jewish Bible in literal terms and divine larceny of land of siblings as ordained, there is no doubt that the Yorùbá explanation of origin of what there is is suffused with clear presuppositions regarding a well-articulated, meaningful, and coherent worldview, espousing meaning of life and existence, sophisticated value systems, intellectually robust ontologies, and epistemologies. Viewed as such, we find that all aspects of Yorùbá existence, as individuals, in communities, within groups, relationally to the cosmos and even in the structuring of otherness, are governed by higher order rules which make the kind of existential angst celebrated by dysfunctional philosophies in the West incomprehensible to the urbane, highly cultured, and axiologically tethered Yorùbá adult. How would apprehending your place as a male, female, young or old, rich or poor, clergy or laity, become a challenge, except in an environment of extreme, destructive, and incoherent individualism, which breeds pernicious greed, value negation, and pursuit of crass pleasure as an end-in-itself, as if people were hogs.

We will return to a proper attenuation of the relationship between Yorùbá conception of reality as the harbinger of a rich value system, which ensures the proper relationship to reality, be it social, material, intellectual, environmental, or spiritual. For now, we will explore the other element of our discussion—the environment—before linking both to make our point that for sustainable preservation of the environment to ensue, there is the need to revisit and adapt indigenous traditions of Yorùbá values.

The Environment

The common orthodoxy of Western education teaches that the “environment” is the totality of everything that is around us. In this conception, there is a distinction made between what is characterized by a false polarity as “living” and “non-living” beings. Strangely, this conception of environment only looks at the material aspect of the universe, as elements in what we humans are able to see, access and control for use toward our immediate and future gratification. These are physical, chemical, and other natural resources and forces. Those that are classified as living beings are the only beings that “live” in their environment. The reason for that is that they are in constant sensory interaction with their environment, often consciously and unconsciously adapting to conditions in their environment. Those classified as non-living are incapable of agency, sensation, or reason, according to the warped Western intellectual tradition. This remarkably false and meaningless bifurcation of beings into living and non-living enables humans, in this tradition, to privilege human beings and render, in rank anthropomorphic terms, the narrative of existences in purely utilitarian and instrumental terms. The extent to which living beings are able to derive benefits from non-living beings in their different interaction tropes between animals, plants, soil, water, and other living and non-living beings, it is to that extent that these others are to be valued.

It may be noticed here that we have been deliberately careful not to use “things” to describe any aspect of what there is in the uni/multiverse. The simple reason for that is the need to avoid the odious derogatory implications of categorizing beings as “things,” as if not being an animal or a plant means being lifeless/useless unless, desired/demanded by human, on the one hand; and on the other hand, the implied devaluation of their essence and nature, which allow human beings to feel no compunction in disposing of them without consideration, until recently; for now humans in the West are beginning to appreciate the overall implications of their/human actions measured in terms of conduciveness to cosmic sustainability and, more critically, human survival within the environment in which we find ourselves. For this reason, it is best to look at the holistic way in which the Yorùbá creation narratives factor in all elements of reality to understand human relationships with each other, as well as with every being in the uni/multiverse, and the attendant values derivable from these ontologies and epistemologies. In Yorùbá culture, the environment—gbogbo ohun tí ó ń bẹ lá́yé àti àjùlé ọ̀run (“everything that exists in heaven and on earth”)—must be understood as the aggregate of surrounding beings, things, conditions, or influences. This also includes the totality of the ecosphere with all the various natural resources, the air, the minerals, the organisms, as well as the non-natural aspects emanating from our relations with each other in social, cultural and other ways, to shape our relations with nature, all material beings and non-material beings.

Extant Yorùbá literature of all genre, written and oral, performance or otherwise, point to the “environment” being seen in this all-encompassing way. The way Yorùbá narrative of origins indicate that the world was created through many agencies: the agency of Olódùmarè, the Supreme Being, those of the divinities, those of the animals, the contribution of the plants and all things in nature; the way in which indigenous knowledge systems are generated; the position of all categories of humans—young, old, women, men, leaders, followers, abled, challenged, etc., all conduce to a systemic appreciation of what constitutes the well-being of all beings. This is encapsulated in various didactic lessons for all, which the stories about Ijap̀á́ti’̀róko,̀ ọkọYańnibo (Tortoise, the husband of Yańnibo) regal young children in moonlit evening entertainment (Babalola, 1972). It is not possible to conceive of any aspect of reality in singular terms, where the nature, the identity, the destiny of any one of them does not coalesce into the constitutive categories that empower each one. Let us see these concepts presented in Yorùbá understanding of nature, the environment, reality, and essence.

When it is said that Òrìṣànlá/Ọr̀ únmìlà or Odùduwà descended from the sky to carry out the instruction of Olódùmarè to create the universe and all in it, the rope that supposedly brought him down has significance. If the rope had not played its part effectively and had been broken in the process of the descent, then there would have been chaos. For this, it is said that bi it̀ àkuǹ ò bá já, ọwọ́ kò ní tẹ ọ̀kẹ́rẹ́ l’óko (“if the rope is not broken, there is no way the squirrel can be captured/killed in the bush”). It is also said that adiỳ ẹbà l’ókùn, ara ò ro’kùn ara ò rọ adiỳ ẹ (“the fowl is perched on the rope, there is no peace for the rope, there is no peace for the fowl”). In essence, it is the maintenance of the equilibrium in all circumstances, with each being performing as expected, that will ultimately conduce to peace and harmony. When any aspect of reality is dislocated, for whatever reason, unless redress is achieved, by whatever means indicated, then the dislocation will affect all aspects of reality.

In the various stories about the tortoise (ìjàpá), the stalking folk hero animal of Yorùbá mythology, it is clear that the values of respect, diligence, accountability, truthfulness, honesty, devotion, loyalty, etc., are never below the surface in all aspects of human endeavors and interactions with others and with non-person others. And when it comes to ideas about knowledge, belief, truth and meaning, it is clear that Yorùbá respect all humans, because no one can pre-empt the cognitive ability of any being unless given the opportunity to use what they know. In D. O. Faǵ uń wa’̀s novels, these are amply demonstrated. Whether in the tale of Ir̀ èke-́ Oníbùdó (1965), Àdìit̀ ú Olódum̀ arè (1964), Ir̀ iǹ ker̀ indò Niń ú Igbó Eleǵ bèje (1961), or Og̀ bójú Ọdẹ Niń ú Igbó Iruń malẹ̀ (1950), there is the clear interlocking connection between all aspects of reality and the manner in which the values that Yorùbá profess are enunciated. The various scriptural texts on Ifá by Wande Abimbola (1976, 1983) and E.M.Lijadu(1972),EsubyAdeDopamu(1986),Aẁ ọnOríkìOrílẹ,̀Àkójọpọ̀ Àlọ́Ìjap̀ ábyAdeboyeBabalọlá(1967,1973),AyéYẹWọń Tań byAkiń wum̀ í Is̀ ọ̀lá (2009) and other authors also attest to this element of Yorùbá understanding of reality, and the values these frame and enjoin. And the Yorùbá epistemological stance is respectful of all perspectives, be it from the young, the adult, the old, male, female, even the mentally challenged. The Yorùbá say, for instance, aṣiwer̀ è l’ọ́jọ́ tirẹ̀ (even the insane has his or her own utility).

Remarkably, also, the dichotomy between realms of being that suffused the Western paradigm of polarities does not exist within Yorùbá cognitive and metaphysical consciousness, and even more especially such false bifurcation is absent in Yorùbá value system. This does not mean that Yorùbá does not separate good from bad, or right from wrong; it is the understanding that there is a continuum of natural and unnatural relationships which mean that the movement of things from one domain to the other is never as absolute as many may think. It is for this reason that the creation story of descent on a rope from the sky/heaven does not seem paradoxical. And in Ile-Ife, there is the belief that there is a spot you can actually go to to travel to the world beyond. The story of Òrúnmìlà and his movement between heaven and earth is a clear example of this.

What is even more interesting is the fact that Yorùbá people believe that all animals have their own traditions, languages, histories, and natures. These are what make them distinct in their different species, and these also ensure their capacity for survival as distinct beings. If humans were able to listen to the voices of animals and other beings in nature, we would be surprised by the kinds of discourses that take place between them. It may be that even the ethnic/racial divides between human groups are non-existent among animal species; and the same may be true of plants, rocks, rivers, seas, etc. Maybe this explains why streams like to flow into rivers, rivers like to flow into seas and seas like to flow into oceans. Maybe this is why the earth is round and everything relates to everything, and the going constitute the coming, while the dying constitute the coming into being. It is even possible that this accounts for the understanding of aberrant behavior and choices for what they are – dig̀ bòlugi, a “thuggish” type of lifestyle.

The Relationship between Values and the Environment

The reason we started this discussion with the ideas of creation or origin of the universe in the Judeo-Christian tradition and mapped the Yorùbá ontological tradition was with a view to showing the direct nexus between cultural ontology/metaphysics and values. By the time we factor in the epistemological categories deriving from the Greeks and the modern European—perhaps the most backward segment of human intellectual history—as exemplified by Descartes and his res cogitans, the individualization of knowledge, without any foundation in the historical antecedents of the person, then we will begin to see how and what accounts for the destructive streak in Western humanity, in comparison with other cultural traditions, of which Yorùbá ontology is a remarkable example.

While it may seem that both Judeo-Christian and Yorùbá ontologies and metaphysics take as a given the existence of a Supreme Being (Yahweh for Jews and Olódùmarè for Yorùbá), the trajectories of cosmological fabrications are totally at variance. The one, Judeo-Christian tradition, places the magical creation effort on the person of the Supreme Being, with all the attendant difficulties arising from such saddling of the Being with the complexities of failure, imperfection, incapacity to monitor and issues relating to adjudication of right and wrong, regardless of the circumstances of action and inaction. The other, the Yorùbá tradition, understanding that it is incoherent and impossible for any being to so fashion and maintain a uni/multiverse of so much complexity, imbued divinities, human beings, and indeed all beings, with the responsibility of not just fashioning but ensuring the wholesome and sustainable survival of all aspects of existence. For this reason, it becomes clear that the Yorùbá metaphysics/ontology has within it the malleability and instructability required to ensure that Olódùmarè does not become a victim of His greatness, and that human beings never get so carried away as to forget that whatever they have received in trust for use, they must maintain in good condition for posterity.

If the creation of terra firma was a product of the agency of multiple entities—Olódùmarè instructing, Òrìṣànlá/Odùduwà descending through a rope, pouch of earth, pigeon or cockerel, palm nut, etc., then the appreciation of process and product places a consciousness of value on all concerned not to take anything for granted. For this reason, there has to be the value of respect for the integrity of all that exist, past, present, and future. The creation of the human being is even more instructive. While in the Judeo-Christian Western tradition, Yahweh created human beings after creating all things, and giving it a soul, and pronouncing human beings master of all, user of all, without responsibility for anything, in the case of Yorùbá, a divinity makes the body, another the head, and the individual is responsible for the choices of good and bad, right and wrong that he/she originates. This makes it clear that humans are not passive receivers of bounty for which no responsibility ensues. On the contrary, the human being contributes to the state of the world, a world in which there is no perfection, either in the extra-terrestrial realm or in the terrestrial realm.

How is this so? After creating everything in six days and resting on the seventh, the Judeo-Christian Western God declared his work as perfect, good, and irreproachable! The intellectual incoherence of such a claim did not seem clear to this narrative, till shortly after it was found that the only soul— Adam—who had been placed within the Garden of Eden was a picture of pity, misery, and depression. This led to the subsequent creation of Eve. Even then, the immediate problem of perfection leading to disobedience did not grate the intellectual sensibility of the Western narrative, as the Great Fall through the consumption of the forbidden fruit was itself predictable as it underscored the fallacy of perfection attributed to Yahweh. Now, this is not to even begin to mention the perfidy of Yahweh in designing a conflict-ridden future for his creation, through the idea of “the chosen race” and “the promised land.” For, how would humanity live with the idea that a good and perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful being, created us all and chose one strand of that creation to take what belongs to all and expect that such divine larceny will go uncontested?

Just flip the coin once, and look at the Yorùbá narrative, which understands that there may even be times when the Supreme Being, Olódùmarè, may get befuddled with the affairs of his domain and need to consult the divinity charged with wisdom, Ọr̀ únmìlà, Baba Ifá, who traverses both the spaces of the divine as well as that of the material, using ọp̀ẹ̀lẹ̀ and Ifá divination to assist gods and humans in navigating the variegated conundrums of existence. To show that charging any being with absolute wisdom, power and truth is ludicrous; the Yorùbá use the tortoise exploits of claiming to assemble all wisdom in a gourd, which he would try to carry to the top of a palm tree so that no one will be able to access it, except himself, but who did not even realize that the placement of the gourd on his belly will make climbing the palm tree well nigh impossible, until a passerby pointed this out to him. He changes the location, but still fails until another person pointed out that the location made his ascent impossible. The moral of the story is that no one can claim to know everything. This is even better reinforced in the belief that it is through the combination of the wisdom of all that Ile-Ife was founded (ọmọdé gbọń , ag̀ bà gbọń , la fi ṣe is̀ ẹ̀dálẹ̀ Ifẹ)̀ .

Yorùbá values are deep and expansive, and recognize that certain things remain valid, even while everything continues to evolve. For example, human nature may indicate that certain activities and needs are constant, but there is recognition that how these needs are met and how the activities are carried out may vary. This is why they would say ayé ń yí lọ, à ń tọ̀ ọ́ (“the world changes constantly, and we keep pace”). This not only speaks to the rotation and revolution of the earth around the sun, but also the evolution of how humans have to live in a changing, interconnected and shifting existential terrain.

We can hypothesize that there are hardly any aspects of human civilization where the values of community, society, and humanity of other societies do not appear superior to Western values. While the invaders of the Americas from Europe showed no interest in long-term survival of the so-called New World, such a system would have been totally deplored in Africa, where one has to be mindful of what happens tomorrow—a metaphor for an elastic and interminable future. For this reason, when you farm, you must allow the soil time to recover, through various clearly eco-friendly methods, compared with mechanized farming where the whole place is cleared, or where strange bio-organisms are introduced to boost production to maximize profit, regardless of consequences to self or to future generations. In governance, this is even starker. While the West celebrates “democracy” as a Greek heritage, it is very clear that there was nothing to celebrate about Greek democracy, because it was government of the few over the many, the so-called free born over the community of serfs, slaves, and women who had no voice in the agora. This tradition has persisted today, making for what one can describe as the democracy hubris, as Western democracy is not about the welfare of the people, but the entrenched interests of the rich, politically connected and those whose sole interest is using power and connections to feather their own nests at the expense of society.

Democracy has morphed into an expensive self-consuming monster in the West and in societies that have uncritically embraced the democracy hubris, taking large chunks of budgets to feed the industry of democracy, which resides in Western capitals. While the infrastructure and employment situation in Western “civilizations” are falling apart, funds must be found to carry out the regular charade of elections, with the sole purpose of giving the poor masses the illusion of participation in governance. Compare that with democracy in Yorùbáland, where all are equally important and make contributions through self and other representation. While it may, on the surface, look like monarchy, autocracy or other, the fact of the matter is that no king, chief, or leader in Yorùbáland could survive as a dictator. The Yorùbá believe that àgbá jọ ọwọ́, òhun la fi ń sọ̀ àyà (“there is strength in numbers, since it is with bunched fingers that one could boldly strike the chest”). The common denominator here is a value system that does not allow for tyranny, as each individual has an intrinsic worth, even while being physically challenged.

There are also clear values relating to nature, all aspects of nature. In many communities, trees, rivers, caves, and other natural resources have assisted the communities to survive in the past. Some of these natural resources, which would have been described in Western scholarship and education as non-living things, have provided special nourishment in times of need, some have been places of shelter during wars or natural disaster, and some have been the fall-back resources when all else seemed lost. For this reason, all things in nature deserves respect, recognition, and attention, so that they can continue to be useful and sources of sustenance to future generations. When a herbalist goes to assemble leaves, roots and barks of trees, he ensures that the sun is up before doing so, or speaks to the plants to seek permission to take some in the aid of nature’s interconnected assistance to each other. The untutored may think this is superstitious. But such an ignorant dismissal of the practice forgets that potency is heightened when the sun is up and photosynthesis takes place, or even, more significantly, that respecting the plant, animal, or river means ensuring the preservation of the species and the environment.

The cognitive environment is not left out. Epistemic responsibility values the collective effort, memory and ownership of knowledge, ideas, technologies, etc. This is what makes the current practice of copyright and patents ludicrous, for, in many instances, Western multinationals go into various indigenous communities, appropriate the indigenous knowledge systems, patent them, and give nothing back to the communities whence such knowledge is derived. Even when you look at what is done in Western scholarship, where books, essays, and results of experiments are patented and owned individually, this bodes poorly for the community that made the discovery possible, as there is no regard or obligation owed by the individual protagonists of such knowledge. This has made it possible for the few to be enriched at the expense of the masses of the people through the manipulation of information, ideas, and knowledge. What is done at the individual level is also done at institutional, national, and racial levels. For example, this is the implication of prohibiting certain countries from developing weapons of mass destruction, while rogue states like the USA and Israel have these weapons and use them regularly.

Yorùbá and the Value of the Environment

Our exploration has revealed some fundamental differences in cultural intelligence of Yorùbá society by contrast with the narcissistic, self-destructive and incoherent Abrahamic Judeo-Christian Western and Islamic societies. These differences account for the manner in which the latter’s socio-cultural reflections, even while parading as universal truths and scientific paradigms, continue to construct ontologies of greed, domination, and destruction; epistemologies of exclusion whereby only the elite few are imbued with capacity for knowledge and remain the beneficiaries of the results of human collective cognitive engagements, and the most pernicious axiologies of conflict with enormous potential for collective human omnicide.

In the Yorùbá cultural intelligence that we have explored, the question of agency is a universal one which pervades not just the domain of humans, but also animals, plants, and other entities in nature, including the streams, rivers, seas, oceans, wind, clouds, rainfall, sunlight, etc. Such a holistic reflective view of the uni/multiverse requires cognitive respect for all things, which in turn leads to care and attention to what is revealed through the agencies in entities environing our spaces. Thus, while Yorùbá culture celebrates wonder and inquisitiveness, encouraging evidence gathering efforts as means of gaining knowledge, there is no arrogation of intellectual supremacy of omniscience to any being, whether natural or supernatural; hence, Olódùmarè consults Òrúnmìlà, his diviner, when confused or in need of an understanding of events past, present, and future. According to Wande Abimbola,

According to the myths, there were occasions when, there being no physical barrier between heaven and earth at that time, Ifá was summoned by Olódùmarè (God Almighty) to heaven to use his great wisdom to solve problems for Him. Ifá finally returned to heaven in annoyance due to an insult given to him by one of his children. Shortly after this, the earth was thrown into great confusion. Famine and pestilence raged throughout the earth. So great was the calamity that the fertility cycle in human beings was disrupted. Aboyún kò bímọ;/Àgan kò t’ọwọ́ àlà b’osùn (Pregnant women no longer delivered;/Barren women remained barren). (1976, 5)

The supernatural has obligations of respect and responsibility, and the natural has obligations of attention and respect toward that which not only makes life happy but also meaningful.

Hence, it is not strange for humans to learn from things around us; as humans observe the habits and behavior of animals, plants, and things in nature to gain insights into the use, tendencies, and the beauty of everything. Such a cognitive attentiveness and respect cannot lead to arrogance, nor does it translate into the appropriation of the intuitive beings of things that do not speak our language or that seem to be of lower rank. This is because if everything were to be uniform, the world would have been impossible to live in, and things would not have had all the systemic interdependence which make for the working of everything together for good and ill. It is in this sense that the good has its own inner capacity to become ill, and the ill, if only the patience to learn from nature to use the insights to correct and make amends, the inner capacity to yield good.

These insights have only just come to light in the West, but it is an uphill battle because of the cultural baggage of the West toward domination, destruction, and disrespect. So, when in recent years Western science begins to realize what older civilizations of Africa, China, and other Far Eastern societies always knew, the resistance has been pronounced, to the extent that there have been concerted efforts by the capitalist controllers of world resources and wealth to maintain the status quo of enriching the top wealthy few to regard global warming as a hoax. Those ignorant few, who are powerful and control the global wealth, and who believe that they can just continue to take without giving back to nature and to others, without responsibility for the survival of the species, continue to utilize their powers to the disadvantage of our collective survival.

One Health Approach to Environment and Sustainable Species Survival

When Europeans first came to Yorùbáland, the narrative claims that they were received as distant members of the family and accorded deserved hospitality which such travellers, albeit inveterate wanderers, had suffered. They were not mistreated, because they were members of our human family. In any case, all sentient beings deserve respect; this even more so with persons who are our distant family members, regardless of the fact that we do not understand their tongues or ways of life. The reasoning is that if animals, plants, and things in nature are accorded respect as part of our world, how much less the persons who are very much like us, but who have suffered some terrible mishap in the course of their wandering. Compare this attitude with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which, through the bogeys of “the chosen race” and “the promised land” willfully concoct narratives of dispossession and expropriation of family members: Jews are Arabs, by their own scriptural account. When Europeans admitted to being inheritors of Greek intellectual traditions, and in virtue of that, the Christian tradition that followed the Roman Empire, it followed that it inherited the philosophy of dispossession and enslavement of others that comes with that tradition. When we compare this with the Yorùbá tradition, we see the stark differences.

When Yorùbá people say that ẹni tẹ etí aṣọ rẹ̀ mọ́’lẹ̀, a fa t’ẹni ya, it means that “one who drags his/her own cloth/dress in the mud, will definitely rend another person’s cloth/dress.” What we get from this is a metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology of exceptionalism, superiority complex, greed, disrespect, and destruction. How so? Now, when one person appropriates, grabs and steals what is common property, and in the process commits genocide (i.e. Saul and the Amalekites) against kinsmen and women, then it is obvious that such a person will treat animals, plants, trees, rivers, and all other things in the environment worse. If by cultural intelligence, native appreciation of reality and intellectual effort, you are able to construct otherness in such destructive ways regarding other human beings who speak the same language as you, then it is clear that when confronted with a choice regarding those whose language you do not understand, your capacity for hospitality, empathy and charity becomes naught. This is not an accident then that when confronted with persons who are not only different looking, speaking languages different from theirs, it is easy to enslave, colonize, destroy and vanquish. This was what happened in the Americas with the deliberate extermination of the native populations by Europeans, followed by the most callous slavery ever invented (similar though to what existed in Greece, the cradle of Western democracy), and by extension the worst forms of colonialism and neo-colonialism in contemporary memory. In Yorùbá society there are records of strangers, foreigners, serfs, “slaves,” and poor people who have risen to positions of prominence and leadership, intermarrying with the people without any prejudice. This is what is meant when it is said that bí ewé bá pẹ́ l’aŕ a ọṣe, á di ọṣẹ (“when the leaves stays too long on the soap, it becomes a soap eventually”). For the Yorùbá, what determines one’s station in life is one’s character, hard work and respect. The obverse is that one may be born to royalty, yet become poor as a consequence of laziness, bad character, or disrespect.

The ultimate goal of life in Yorùbá society is that of mutual survival. When you tap the palm tree for wine, you do it respectfully without cutting the shoot, even though it would have brought you more juice. And it is the height of abomination to uproot the palm tree, set fire to it at the bottom, to drain the juice from the top, even though what you get will be instantly more potent. These however are practices that exist in neighboring cultures, but the Yorùbá abhor them. When you fish, you do not catch the “children” or “babies” of the fish, and it is wrong to slaughter for delicacy the infant of the lamb or goat! When you farm, the prayer is that there be no hunger to make us eat both the yam and the seeds of the yam, or to start harvesting the yam before they mature. Such unnatural behaviors are regarded as “killing” the future of the various entities that surround us and which conduce to our welfare.
In the final analysis, the values which govern all aspects of existence are such that they come together to help promote the understanding that if those of us on the ground (eè p̀ ẹ)̀ are not healthy, those that live in the air (birds) and in the sea (fishes) cannot be healthy. When examined carefully, the ontology of respect and empathy, protection of the weak and vulnerable, whether of humans, animals, plants, or other entities in our environment is predicated on the idea that our health is connected to the health of everything around us. Even morality of interpersonal relationships has much to do with the individual health, family health, community health, and global health.


The discussion in this essay has generated comparisons, which are rather unusual. Intellectual traditions are not the kinds of things that are brought to face off, especially not ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies in the way we have done in this discussion. Some may not be comfortable with the ideas of suggesting that European values or Yorùbá values can be given cultural interpretation, rather than the values of individuals. But such hypocrisy will only mask the fact that cultures produce thinkers, who consciously and otherwise often become reflections of the cultures in their intellectual efforts, even when they pontificate from the rooftops that they are iconoclasts, irreverent. or revolutionary; you can only oppose what is possible in your imaginary.

When applied to Nigeria, we see a double bind brought about, on the one hand, by the effect of colonization and the amalgamation policy of 1914; and on the other hand, by the admixture of several incompatible ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies that compete for attention within a state without direction. One consequence of this is that the national environment, held captive by capitalist orthodoxies, thereby fails to make sense of the issues that the Yorùbá clearly understand. Greed and personal aggrandizement have become clear national “virtues” that collude with global capitalist interests to undermine the collective health of the Nigerian state. A very distinct demonstration of this resides in the vast template of ecological denigration that we call the Niger Delta, which has become a metaphor for environmental irresponsibility. A deep dynamics of national greed has produced a fundamental ignorance about the fact that in dealing with plants, animals, and things in the environment, what one does today has serious repercussions for the future. Thus, if something is as useful today as the Niger Delta is as the golden goose that produces the oil wealth, it needs to be treated with the utmost respect and maintained in good health, so that it can continue to be relevant and useful in the future. A one-health approach, encapsulated in the Yorùbá ontology, epistemology, and axiology, possesses a sound possibility of enabling the reinvention of Nigeria’s understanding of her natural and cultural environments


1 The Hebrew Bible is a collection of texts or scriptures considered by believers to be sacred, and that Jews and Christians consider to be a product of divine inspiration and a record of the relationship between God and humans, written by various individuals over an extended period of time, spanning many generations. Curiously, the Bible that has come down was a product of selection by some group of men, and hence cannot be considered exhaustive of such divinely inspired writings but the fiat of some privileged few.

Works Cited

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Sunday Olaoluwa Dada
Department of Philosophy
Ekiti State University, Nigeria


This essay explores the philosophical affinity between Aristotle’s concept of virtue as character habituation and the Yorùbá ethical and ontological understanding of ọmọlúwàbí as the foundation for re-examining the philosophical foundation of democratic governance in Nigeria. Based on the Aristotelian insistence that the good life is the end of politics, the essay argues for a rethinking of the concept of public morality as character-based political dynamics that enables politicians to think more about the social contract between the government and the governed, rather than an amoral understanding of politics that eschew morality and undermines the well-being of the citizens. The absence of public morality, the essay argues, has resulted in a neopatrimonial framework within which the political elite willfully circumvent constitutional rules and regulation in order to vitiate the public interest. The essay concludes by arguing for a rigorous public enlightenment as well as a reform of the educational curriculum through an injection of virtue ethics.

Keywords: Ọmọlúwàbí, Aristotle, Character, Virtue, Public morality


One of the areas of interest in politics today is the consideration of the ethical behavior of public officials and the moral contents of public policy; and most public criticism has focused on the former. The reason for this is that we live in a time, especially in Nigeria, when we often find ourselves disappointed by the moral character of leaders as well as the disappointing display of immorality in official matters. Elected political leaders and politically appointed officials are expected to have some moral commitments both at the private and public levels. When a person is elected into political office, one of the conditions for electoral trust is the person’s moral track record, especially with regard to integrity. Integrity in this sense ties in with the transparent handling of matters of governance in ways that will eventually benefit those the public officers are representing.

The significance of public morality lies in its ensuring that a leader’s moral dynamics are sufficiently firm and commendable as to be suitable for the critical task of holding public office. The idea of public morality intersects that of democratic governance at the point of making sure that strong institutions are not willfully undermined by degenerate politicians and other public office holders. Democratic governance is founded on strong institutions that are put in place to facilitate the mutually empowering relationship between government and the governed. Political power, if not properly circumscribed, undermines the public good through the political maneuvers of greedy and unscrupulous public officials and politicians. It is at this point that public policies become side-tracked in a way that benefits the representatives rather than, and even at the expense of, the represented. One of the fears that people have about leaders is that “they will abuse power or that they will distort their sense of self, moral purpose, and accountability” (Ciulla 2003, 54). The temptations posed by the allure of political power therefore become a cogent challenge that must be short-circuited by political leaders if the citizens are to benefit from democratic governance under the watch of conscientious leaders.

How then can democratic governance be enabled through the moral dynamics of good leadership? What is the role of cultural knowledge in facilitating good governance? How, for instance, can a Yorùbá moral philosophy enable the conscious rehabilitation of the idea of public morality in Nigeria? These questions form the bedrock of this essay. In the first section, I will be concerned with a critical interrogation of democracy in Nigeria and the absence of public morality which has resulted in a neo-patrimonial framework within which the political elite willfully circumvent constitutional rules and regulation in order to vitiate the public interest. We argue here that public morality is one of the values that undergird democracy anywhere in the world, and that this value contributes an ethically worthwhile component to the social contract between the government and the governed. The second section examines the Yorùbá concept of ọmọlúwàbí through an interrogation of Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between virtue and character. The third and final section outlines the possible ways by which the ọmọlúwàbí ethos could serve as an ethical platform for reinventing the anomic Nigerian polity. It also considers the policy implications of the ọmọlúwàbí ethos in rethinking our institutional deficiency in Nigeria.

Democracy and Public Morality in Nigeria

Democracy is simply government established through the consent of the people. And this form of government has become the accepted governance norm across the globe. One of the fundamental reasons for this is that the ideals that democracy embraces are those which foster equality, justice, and fairness. According to Diamond et al., democracy can be described as a political system that meets the three essential conditions of

meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all effective positions of governmental power, at regular intervals and excluding the use of force; a ‘highly inclusive’ level of political participation in the selections of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair elections, such that no major (adult) social group is excluded; and a level of civil and political liberties—freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom to form and join organizations—sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation (1990, 6-7).

From this perspective, democracy is essentially a system that enhances and reinforces popular participation and fundamental human rights. In agreement with this, Franceschet sees democracy as involving three basic requirements: non-violence, political participation and control, and political equality (Franceschet 2009, 21–28).

The commencement of the democratic dispensation in Nigeria, since 1999, therefore calls for some sense of optimism toward the transformation of the Nigerian polity into an empowering one for the Nigerian citizens. This is because democracy, at least in principle, assures that the social contract—which ensures that the aspirations of citizens will be the top priority of the government—will be honored. The dawn of a new democratic era in Nigeria raises the hopes that Nigerians might finally start enjoying the dividends of inclusive political participation and representative policymaking that will jumpstart infrastructural development.

Nigeria’s democratic manifestation is first denoted by the regularity of elections since 1999. The fact that Nigeria has entered into the democratic era is attested to by the many elements of institutional democracy which are now in place in the country. In a democracy, the authority to govern is derived or acquired from the people that are governed. This is achieved through regular elections where citizens elect their representatives. Elections involve a set of activities leading to the (s)election of one or more persons out of many to serve in positions of authority in the society. What gives credibility to the process and legitimacy to the elected persons is that the election is conducted according to all constitutional and legal dictates, and hence adjudged free and fair even by the contestants. According to Huntington (1996), a political system is democratic if its most powerful collective decision makers are chosen through fair, honest and periodic elections in which candidates freely compete for votes and in which virtually the entire adult population is eligible to vote. For elections to be credible, it must be competitive; that is, the candidates involved must be given equal opportunity. This implies that there must be no attempt to marginalize any candidate. According to Wojtasik, “competition ensures legitimacy of decisions taken by the elected representatives, provided all adults are eligible to participate in the elections” (2013, 27–28).

The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), between 1999 and 2015, has conducted five consecutive general elections, and is preparing for another in 2019. This can be considered a drive towards the consolidation of democratic governance in the country. This should not however blind us to the fact that the electoral process in Nigeria is fraught with many problems that threaten the democratic institutions themselves. It is no wonder that the same process that strengthens an institution when implemented properly also undermines it when attention is not paid to its dynamics. Nigeria is still battling with the electoral process. For instance, the 2007 election, which voters hoped would be free and fair, was reported in the newspapers to be fraught with fraud and violence (Vasudevan 2007, 2499). The media was filled with reports of stuffed boxes, voter intimidation, and phony results. Vasudevan catalogued reports of the election:

Nigeria’s independent observers’ group—the Transitional Monitoring Group (TMG)—called the elections a “sham”. The observers of the European Union observed that the elections could hardly be called “credible by basic international standards” and had “failed to meet the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people”. Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, indicated that “the election process failed the Nigerian people”. The International Republican Institute, a US based non-governmental organisation argued that the elections in Nigeria were the worst that they had monitored, with standards below what they had seen even in backward, poverty-ridden Somalia. Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel Prize winner, called it “the most insulting elections in this country” and called for their cancellation given the massive irregularities. The Financial Standard, a newspaper of Nigeria, pointed out that nearly 70 per cent of the presidential ballot papers printed in South Africa were consciously and in connivance with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) hoarded in a warehouse in Johannesburg so as to deliberately create an artificial scarcity. The newspaper maintained that the INEC was a handmaiden of the PDP—the party in power and also wondered whether South Africa was an accidental accomplice The Africa Report concluded that INEC itself was neither “independent” nor “credible”. The Human Rights Watch Group was more on target when it simply said that “Nigeria has not held a free and fair general election since the end of military rule” (2007, 2499).

The above outlines what has been a constant manifestation in Nigeria’s elections since the First Republic, and the first election in 1962. There is no doubting the fact that the coup that ousted the First Republic was justified against the backdrop of the massive rigging that undermined the credibility of the elections in the Western region in 1965. As Akinola (2013) relates, the attempt by the leadership of Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) to impose itself on the people of the Western region led to the violence which culminated in the killing of NNDP supporters and the burning of houses. This is not to say that the rigged election was the only reason for the military intervention. There are other reasons such as the heterogeneity of the country and the politics of regionalism in the immediate post-independent era which polarized the country. However, elections become significant because they were also critical in the collapse of the Second Republic led by Shehu Shagari. The violence that erupted in August 1983 in Ondo State is a case in point. According to Apter (1992), the violence was caused by the popular reaction against the rigged gubernatorial election in favor of National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in a state that was overwhelmingly Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The fact that electoral fraud such as ballot snatching and violence have accompanied Nigeria’s elections shows that the underlying cause of the failure of the first and second republics have not been properly understood and tackled.

One important dimension of how critical Nigeria’s political institutions have become derives from the perception of these institutions, which leads to anti-democratic consequences. Politics becomes essentially zero-sum because public offices have imbibed the logic of prebendalism and patrimonialism, the two unfortunate facts of political life in Nigeria, that ensured that public office holders violate the imperatives of the social contract between the governed and the government. Thus, skewed dynamics of public morality become a critical factor in the sustenance of Nigeria’s democratic dispensation.

What is Public Morality? The Nigerian Example

In A Moral Vision for America, Bernadin says that an issue is one of public morality when it relates to or affects the public order of society. Public order, for him, encompasses three goods, namely, “public peace, essential protection of human rights and commonly accepted standards of moral behavior in a community” (Bernadin 1998, 46). Among these three components, the one that should be taken as primarily defining public morality is the “commonly accepted standard of moral behavior in a community”. The reason is that its formulation and acceptance would yield the other two elements. Weinstew defines public morality as the set of standards prescribing right conduct within social-cultural organization. According to him, “It is the morality exemplified by the system of social roles that makes up social-cultural organization. Thus, in so far as one can define systems of social roles, public morality is present as the standards prescribed by these roles” (1973, 10). It is a truism that standards prescribing the right conduct within sociocultural environment have been and continue to be an integral aspect of the human condition in its social and cultural phases. They have also been an inseparable component of social harmony. Public morality essentially involves imposing a form of moral behavior on politicians and public office holders in order to ensure that their personal moral codes do not undermine the public interest. In this sense, therefore, we can adduce the argument that any move away from public morality in national politics entails a weakening of Nigeria’s democracy.

Humans are always in a state of becoming. The reason is that the structure of human existence itself is dialectical. According to Weinstew,

In the process of activity, people are continuously moving beyond themselves and losing themselves in their world. This is the dialectical moment of self-transcendence. However, through self-transcendence human beings incorporate parts of the world into themselves and thereby find themselves more fully than they could have before action was initiated (1973, 10).

The import of this is that in the process of engaging in the existential business of living and in public affairs, there is the tendency to find ourselves doing what we do not intend. This is where the significance of public morality surfaces. If there are no moral standards that act as a check, the good person can be transformed (un)wittingly into a bad person in the political arena. Leaders are not in power to accumulate money, amass power and gain influence. They are there as symbols of what is right and what values the society should uphold. The function of public morality is to delineate what is right and what is acceptable in the political terrain. And it is significant because it will circumscribe both the personal and the political actions of political leaders.

According to Jansen, public morality, in addition to the law, forms the normative foundation of every society. Public morality, according to him, “constitutes the mutually justified demands of in individuals and thus stabilizes individual expectations of conduct… [and] serves as the measure of normative correctness in both law and politics” (1998, 1). Unless political action and judicial processes follow some acceptable moral convictions and standards, they cannot lay claim to legitimacy and binding force. The society must know what is morally valid so that substance can be given to its moral norms. Once substance is given to the moral norms, it becomes valid and morally binding. Public morality must be adhered to even when particular contents and norms are against some individuals’ moral convictions. Of course, as Jansen remarks, it is normally not easy to accept moral norms in public when they conflict with one’s own views (1998, 6). However, moral consensus is possible when each person looks at the moral norms on their own merits.

What counts as public morality is what Jansen refers to a freestanding morality. It is freestanding in the sense that though valid for all, it is not justified on the basis of one single ideology or worldview adhered to by a few participants. To idealize or objectify a moral norm that does not achieve consensus on the ideological level would be unacceptable to those who reasonably do not share such convictions. For this reason, Jansen contends that a freestanding conception “must be justifiable independently of a single ideological conception of moral”. He is however of the opinion that such moral consensus is possible:

It is therefore not Utopian to say that consensus on freestanding norms of public morality is at least possible. All in all, it is firstly important to note that a freestanding conception is the result of moral agreements and not of common epistemic insights. It forms an additional normative level of common morality alongside individual moral convictions (Jansen 1998, 1).

The justification for public morality is that there is, according to Wellborn, “an empirical reality in any given society which can be designated as a common morality” (1978, 493), which consists of the most widely shared moral convictions of the society. Public morality is then “that part of the common morality which is translated by the society into statutory law” (Wellbourn 1978, 493).

There is another twist to the meaning of public morality as suggested in the definition given by Dwight Waldo. According to him, public morality relates to “action directed to the interests and welfare of more inclusive ‘populations’ than self, family, clan or tribe” (Waldo 1974–1975, 44). That is to say, apart from looking at public morality from the point of view of acceptable common standard of behavior within a sociopolitical environment, it also has to do with how public officials use public goods and public resources. When a leader or public official uses his or her office to benefit personal interest or family in accordance with neo-patrimonial logic, then such an official has violated the tenets of public morality, and hence has acted immorally. This constitutes a conflict of interest issue. Conflict of interest arises, according to Williams, in a situation in which an employee has a private financial interest sufficient to influence, or appear to influence, the exercise of his or her public duties and responsibility (1985, 6). Another way of saying this is that a conflict of interest exists when a public employee’s public responsibilities clash, or appear to clash, with his or her private economic affairs. According to Mafunisa, “in its narrowest and perhaps crudest sense, conflict of interest refers to a set of circumstances in which a public employee uses his or her government position, either overtly or covertly, in such a way as to achieve personal monetary gain. In its broadest sense, it refers to any situation in which an employee’s public responsibility and private interests conflict and does not suggest that the clash has been resolved to the advantage of the private rather than the government interest” (2003, 5). According to Willbern,

The general presumption is that the moral duty of an official or employee of a unit of government is to pursue the “public interest” i.e., the needs and welfare of the general body of citizens of the unit. His own interests, and the interests of partial publics of which he may be a member, are to be subordinated if they differ from the broader, more general, public interest—as they almost inevitably will, from time to time (1984, 104).

The public office holder is responsible to the generality of the people, and not to himself and his ethnic or religious affiliations. In a situation where there is conflict of interest, he or she ought to prioritize the interest of the citizenry. What we see in the Nigerian situation is an aberration of these moral and political norms. Public office holders prioritize themselves and their personal interests as primary. This is the cause of the numerous scandals involving embezzlement of public funds, bribery, contract distortions, budget padding, etc. This is a great concern because it is not only immoral to use one’s official position to benefit oneself at the expense of the public that one intends to serve in the first instance, but also because it reduces public trust and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of public functionaries. All dimensions of the conflict of interest issue, from “godfatherism” and favoritism to nepotism and ethnic biases crucially undermine democratic probity.

What is the relationship between public morality and conformity to the law? Willbern argues that public officials are morally bound to tell the truth, keep promises, respect the person and properties of others, and to abide by the demands of the law, like any other citizen. This is very important because the public official is first of all a person and an individual member of society. In Nigeria, public morality has broken down in this area. It seems like those in official positions are above the law. The Nigerian Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) constitutes the statutory organ that is responsible for monitoring the conduct of public officials. Its mandate is “To establish and maintain a high standard of morality in the conduct of government business and to ensure that the actions and behavior of public officers conform to the highest standards of public morality and accountability”.jump to footnote 1 on this panel

The establishment and functions of the CCB feature prominently in the Nigerian Constitution. The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution states clearly what is expected from all public officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. For instance, paragraph one states: “A public officer shall not put himself in a position where his personal interest conflicts with his duties and responsibilities.” Paragraph 11(b) further states that a public officer must “at the end of his term of office, submit to the Code of Conduct Bureau a written declaration of all his properties, assets, and liabilities and those of his unmarried children under the age of eighteen years.”

However, there is a very wide gulf between the law and its enforcement. The essential problem with public morality derives from the absence of a constitutional order that ensures that laws are upheld, and that no one can violate the rules and protocols of public office with impunity. But this is what happens, and has become the order of the day. Even though the CCB has the power to “ensure compliance with and, where appropriate, enforce the provisions of the Code of Conduct of any law relating thereto,” it has become effete in its capacity to police public morality in Nigeria. And unfortunately, this ineffectiveness is a large part of the anti-corruption institutions in the country. The ongoing case against the president of the Nigerian Senate, Olusola Saraki, is the highest profile case pursued by the CCB since the commencement of the democratic dispensation in 1999. No Nigerian, I am sure, have any illusion as to how the case will turn out.

The spate of stealing public money among politicians in office has become so alarming. In fact, for public office holders, stealing and embezzlement have become normal practice to the extent that it is always said that “government does not abhor stealing; it is only the thief who is careless enough to be caught that the law descends heavily upon” (Falola and Adebayo 2000, 256). Apart from the enormity of the loots of past Nigerian leaders that the federal government of Nigeria has recovered so far, the public sphere is daily filled with the news of billions of naira that public officials steal or embezzle. It takes little reflection to see how the selfish perception of political offices could easily lead not only to prebendal politics, but also the violence attached to winning elections for public offices, or the spate of political assassinations. Assassination has become an instrument of settling a score or for dealing with one’s political opponents. Durotoye provides a list of politically motivated killings in Nigerian between 1999 and 2000, with such high profile killings like that of Bola Ige, a former Nigerian justice minister and attorney general (killed on December 23, 2001); Marshall Harry, the national vice chairman for the South-South Zone of the now defunct All Nigeria’s People’s Party (killed in December, 2001); Ogbonnaya Uche, an ANPP senatorial candidate in the southeastern state of Imo and former commissioner in the Imo State government (shot in his home in Owerri on February 8, 2003, he died two days later); and so on (2014, 235–242). The most troubling part of these killings is that most of them have not been solved, and the perpetrators have not been brought to justice (Durotoye 2014, 235–242). While Igbafe and Offiong think that the reason for this is “the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the national security outfit, particularly the police that has failed to live up to its duties by apprehending the culprits and their collaborators” (Igbafe and Offiong 2007, 12), I suspect that a more fundamental reason must be sought in the very nature of politics in Nigeria, and the complicity of those in political offices in the protection of their spoils of office.

In the next section, I will interrogate the Yorùbá idea of ọmọlúwàbí as a possible discursive mediation of public morality in Nigeria. My methodological approach will be to examine the concept of ọmọlúwàbí using Aristotle’s virtue ethics. This is because in Aristotle, we find the moderation of the individual in a way that is similar to the Yorùbá moral imperative of individual character. Ọmọlúwàbí has significant implications for Nigerian democracy, and the starting point is to accept the Aristotelian hitching of ethics to politics.

Aristotle on Virtue and the Yorùbá Ọmọlúwàbí Ethos

In Aristotle, we find an inseparable relationship between morality and politics. Outlining what such a relationship entails was his sole concern in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle conceives ethics and politics as practical sciences that deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is concerned with individual moral action while politics is concerned with human actions in the political community. This shows that the task of politics is much more than the acquisition of political power or even the provision of what is necessary for the life of the community. The well-being of the community is not confined to economic security and internal and external peace. On the contrary, the primary task of politics is to care for the citizens’ acquisition of knowledge and their moral conditioning. Politics then becomes an application at a larger scale of what ethics tries to do at the individual level—institute and teach action that will bring happiness. In order accomplish this, politics “lays down laws about what we should do and refrain from” (Aristotle 2004, 4). What this suggests is that both ethics and politics are oriented towards action, and the right action. For Aristotle, the end of politics is the best of ends and the main concern for politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions (Aristotle 2004, 16). The concept that links ethics and politics in Aristotle is telos, that is, ends. Aristotle considers everything as having ends, and the end that humans pursue is happiness (eudemonia). To be able to achieve this, Aristotle thinks that man has to live a life of virtue. In other words, a person who is not living a virtuous or moral life will likely not be able to achieve happiness. But then, even Aristotle understands that it is not easy to live a virtuous life. To become virtuous, human beings need to live under the right conditions. The right condition is a well-ordered and well-constructed political community.

Aristotle’s discussion on virtue bothers on how to behave well in order to
achieve the good life. He defines (moral) virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a means between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Virtue for Aristotle is character. And character is not a natural capacity with which one is endowed; it is not something we have and then begin to display, like the capacity to see. On the contrary, it is an acquired tendency, like acquiring a skill. And just as we become perfect in the continuous reproduction of what we learn to produce, becoming virtuous comes by virtuous habituation; that is, by doing what is good (Aristotle 2004, 23-24 ). A state of character arises from the repetition of similar good habits. Hence, you cannot say that someone is virtuous or has good character if he or she does not do what is good and right.

Aristotle also emphasizes that moral virtue is not only gauged by the final action, the same way the final product defines a craft. Virtue is not just defined only by doing what is right, but is also determined by the state of mind from which the action springs. A virtuous act is that which is done intentionally, chosen deliberately for its own sake, and arises from a fixed disposition that has been developed through habituation. Character then becomes a deliberately cultivated disposition. What this shows, according to Tessitore, is that:

While it is neither necessary nor possible to possess virtue in order to become virtuous, one can and must cultivate the external actions appropriate to virtue as a part of the process of becoming genuinely virtuous. Aristotle’s earlier emphasis on the centrality of correct opinion and proper education becomes, with this explanation, more fully intelligible. These exert a powerful influence on the type of actions that become habitual and, as such, provide the indispensable ground for the development of full virtue. (1996, 26).

According to Aristotle, “it is not unimportant, then to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important” (Aristotle in Steinberger, 2000, 367).2 Aristotle could be saying two things here. The first is that a lengthy process is required for a person to get the appetitive part of his soul in line with the rational part, a conjunction which is require for virtuous living. The second is that it is important to have a long history of moral character, as this is critical to how people look at us as individuals. The reason is that people do not have short memories as to the history of human behavior. Rather, such history constitutes what people use as a basis for assessing us morally. For instance, when we want to select a leader for a political office, it is seems only logical to look at the person’s track record in moral terms and assume that if the person has done well in the past, he or she would most likely do well in the future. An example can be found in American history when the American public subjected presidential candidate Gary Hart to scorn for cheating on his wife and was consequently forced out of the presidential race (Ciulla 2003). The current president of the US, Donald Trump, is facing a similar opprobrium at the moment over shady dealings. However, the important question is whether Aristotle forecloses moral reorientation as one grows more mature in society. That someone has been morally bankrupt in the past does not foreclose the possibility of reclaiming himself in the future. Habituation is a process that can be picked up at any time.

For Aristotle, the focus of virtue, character, and consequently morality, is how to act in the right way, for that is how we can benefit from moral examination. The purpose of ethics is not just for intellectual contemplation. He writes:

The branch of philosophy we are dealing with at present is not purely theoretical like the others, because it is not in order to acquire knowledge that we are considering what virtue is, but to become good people otherwise there would be no point in it. So we must consider the matter of our actions, and in particular how they should be performed, since, as we have said, they are responsible for our states developing in one way or another (Aristotle 2004, 24 ).

In other words, knowing what virtue is is not as important as knowing how to act (that is, do what is good/right). The all-important purpose of this is that what we do is what determines the character of the state we control. In other word, what we turn out to be in terms of our character is a function the actions we are habituated towards. A person cannot become brave by refraining from actions that demonstrate bravery. Someone who is coming to the position of leadership for the first time must have proven himself at the private level to earn the quality that will make people believe that s/he is capable of standing in that office without moral failure. Actions are very important, but as Aristotle points out, an action that becomes excessive is bad. The right sort of character habituation is that which avoids excess and deficiency, and maintains a mean position. For him,

The same goes, then, for temperance, courage and the other virtues: the person who avoids and fears everything, never standing his ground, becomes cowardly, while he who fears nothing, but confronts every danger, becomes rash. In the same way, the person who enjoys every pleasure and never restrains himself becomes intemperate, while he who avoids all pleasure, as boors do, becomes, as it were, insensible. Temperance and courage, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency, and preserved by the mean (Aristotle 2004, 24).

An important question, an answer Aristotle elucidates in the Nicomachean Ethics, is how the process of character habituation is to be effected. For him, it is through law and education. These are needed because most people would like to follow their natural passion. So, Aristotle gives no room to moral luck. People do not turn out virtuous unless they so deliberately cultivate virtue, and that is why training from an early age becomes significant.

Aristotle clearly envisages that the habituation necessary for the development of moral virtue can best be effected by law. The purpose of law in the polity is to make citizens good and capable of noble actions. Accordingly, legislators make laws that can habituate the citizens towards good habits. It is the correct way of doing that which, for Aristotle, distinguishes a good political system from a bad one. However, some questions have arisen of the possibility of law producing virtues such as bravery, love, generosity and so on. There is also the question of whether everything prescribed by the law is virtuous. Aristotle does not seem to indicate we can answer this question in the affirmative. We all know that there is the possibility of bad laws. So, if Aristotle is prescribing law as one of the bases of character habituation, then he must be talking about a good law. Aristotle sees law as a means of ensuring proper conduct of the citizens (Aristotle, 2004, 4). Laws are both incentives to right action and power that imposes discipline. He underscores the importance of law when he remarks that:

But if one has not been reared under the right laws it is difficult to obtain from one’s earliest years the correct upbringing for virtue, because the masses, especially the young, do not find it pleasant to live temperately and with endurance. For this reason, their upbringing and pursuits should be regulated by laws, because they will not find them painful once they have become accustomed to them. Perhaps it is not enough, however, that when they are young they get the right upbringing and care; rather, because they must continue to practise and develop their habits when they are grown up, we shall need laws for this as well, and generally for the whole of life. For the masses heed necessity rather than argument, punishments rather than what is noble (Aristotle 2004, 200-201).

Along this line, Aristotle takes particular interest in those who are to be lawgivers (legislators). They should be given proper education. This establishes more the relationship between ethics and politics and, not only that, it also indicates that the right moral education is not just a private but more importantly, a public concern (Aristotle 2004).

The other process of character habituation is through proper upbringing in the family. Here, character habituation will be guided, for example, by one’s parents or teachers, the primary agents of socialization that are significant for a child’s social and moral maturation. The purpose of this process is to develop in the individual practical wisdom, which makes the virtuous person able to get it right in each sphere without guidance from others. Right education involves being habituated in pleasure and pain since if these are badly ingrained, virtue is impossible. The significance of education derives from the insistence that universal rules on which laws are based require personal experience to adapt them to particular circumstance. This then implies that a city may have a well-structured legal system, and yet such a city may not be able to produce virtuous people because a proper education is missing. The advantage of family education over law is that it allows virtue to be ingrained in the individual reaching down to all of the individual’s internal motivations and impulses. This is contrasted to the understanding of virtue as a mechanical capacity to repeat certain kinds of action. However, as Aristotle himself notes,

The command of a father has no strength or compulsive power, nor in general does that of a single person, unless he is a king or something like that; but law does have compulsive power, and it is reason proceeding from a kind of practical wisdom and from intellect. And people hate a human being who stands in opposition to their impulses, even if he is right to do so; but there is no oppressiveness in the law’s prescribing what is good (Aristotle 2004, 201).

What this implies is that parental upbringing and habituation within the family cannot produce the kind of power that the law has over the individual that is being cultivated. However, we should not forget that the family happens to be the first contact of the individual with character habituation and the development of virtue. To my mind, emphasis should be placed on education for character development at the family level. Aristotle seems to suggest this when he points out that individual and private education is preferable to common education:

…education on an individual basis is superior to education in common, as in the case of medical care. For though in general rest and abstinence from food are beneficial for a person in a fever, presumably they may not be for a particular person; and a boxer, presumably, will not prescribe the same style of fighting for all his pupils. It would seem, then, that particular cases are treated with greater subtlety if there is attention to individuals, since each person is more likely to obtain what suits him (Aristotle, 2004, 202).

What he is saying is that private education is more favorable on the ground that it is more adaptable to the individual’s special needs.

In any society, there is a way of celebrating the man of character especially when he is involved in the political sphere. This is epideictic rhetoric, which Aristotle set out in Rhetoric, composed to deal with the practical necessities and uncertainties of governance in a free society. It posed an alternative to the reign of force imposed by a tyrant and the rule of authority imposed by those deemed superior in moral and intellectual virtue. Rhetoric makes most sense in a world where peers govern themselves. As Aristotle sees the matter, rhetoric applies to free humans who desired neither to experience any form of subjugation nor to impose subjugation upon their fellow citizens. Rhetoric can therefore be firmly situated within an ethical context. As Hauser notes, Aristotle, in response to the uncertain civic conditions of the day, proposes that “a rhetorical practice of adhering to artistic precepts would improve the quality of public life” (1999, 9). The role of epideictic rhetoric is to either praise or condemn political figures in the society in order to thereby educate both the politicians and the people on the acceptable political behavior in the society. Rhetoric thus serves as a way of promoting public morality. Rhetors, practitioners of rhetoric, must therefore have rhetorical competence in order to render competent judgment. The rhetors are supposed to be grounded in the moral requirements of their communities since the “prevailing rhetoric is a statement of communal beliefs and commitment as well as a demonstration of the rhetor’s practical wisdom” (ibid, 14).

The Yorùbá concept of ọmọlúwàbí is a correlate of Aristotle’s person of character. The thesis of this essay is that the ọmọlúwàbí ethos can be mined for an understanding of the character dynamics that is necessary for democracy to flourish through its public office holders in Nigeria. In Yorùbá culture, ọmọlúwàbí is not the name of any specific person, but rather a concept that possesses both normative and descriptive content. As a description, ọmọlúwàbí denotes an individual who has acquired a moral status that could qualify him as being virtuous. As Aristotle has noted, character is the result of being habituated in what is good and noble. So also ọmọlúwàbí derives from being habitually moral. It is not an appellation one can unilaterally give to oneself. It is conferred by others in society who recognize a person as a morally upright person. Ọmọlúwàbí is the “morally upright person who exhibits such virtues as honesty, respect (for himself, elders, and for others in general), decency, benevolence, etc.” (Bewaji 2004, 399). In the perspective of Jamiu (2007), ọmọlúwàbí describes someone who thorough-bred and is regarded as worthy of being entrusted with positions of responsibility. As a normative concept, it serves as the standard of acceptable moral behavior; that is, it determines the boundaries of what is moral (ìwà rere) and what is not moral (ìwà búburú). According to Olunlade (2017), the concept of ọmọlúwàbí is the bedrock of ethics in Yorùbá cultural society. It is, for her, a significant concept that articulates the good habits people should acquire and the duties they should uphold. In other words, it encompasses all the ethical values expected of a person as a worthy member of the society. For Jamiu (2007), it is a concept that encompasses all the good attributes an individual must possess before he could be regarded as a good person and the lack of these qualities mean that the person would be described as a bad person.

In traditional Yorùbá society, character (ìwà) constituted an indispensable part of social existence, peace and order, and formed a part of the qualities that a Yorùbá person must possess before he or she can be reckoned with in the community. Like other traditional societies in the world, the Yorùbá have unwritten codes of conduct which are meant to circumscribe proper attitude and behavior. According to Dauda, “Ìwà as morality is the unwritten constitution for the everyday running of the public and private affairs of the Yoruba nation” (2017, 483). The Yorùbá would say, for instance, ìwà l’ẹwà (“character is beauty”) or ìwà l’ẹ̀ṣọ́ èniyàn (“character beautifies the person”). What this shows is that if you have everything and you lack ìwà, you are therefore not adorned and not beautiful to behold. The Omolúàbí is the one who has ìwà rere (good character), ìwa pẹ̀lẹ́ (gentle character), ìwà tútù (mild character). To say ìwà l’ẹwà only implies that character is the essence of beauty. Thus, if you have character, you have by that fact become a beautiful person. But this does not mean that if you have beauty, you have character. Ìwà l’ẹwà suggests, as Afolayan argues, that “beauty goes beyond the superficial adornment of the human body to something deeper that relates to his or her ontological existence” (2017, 886).

The Yorùbá believe that ìwà is considered to be the daughter of sùúrú (patience). In other words, it is patience that produces good character. As Gbadegesin explains, sùúrú is the source of ìwà pẹ̀lẹ́ and ìwà rere. For him, a demonstration of ìwà pẹ̀lẹ́ is seen in being mindful of the individuality of others, treating others gently and being tolerant and accommodating of the peculiarity of the existence of others (1998, 304). The political killings that are witnessed in Nigerian democracy show the level at which this moral element of Yorùbá culture has been undermined and ignored.

The virtue of being an ọmọlúwàbí is one of the goals of Yorùbá traditional education; to make the child a worthy member of the society. Thus, for example, a person who does not know how to greet, and in a proper language and tone, is said to lack home training (ẹ̀kọ́ ilé). Such a person cannot be an ọmọlúwàbí. If the person knows how to greet and respect elders and the individuality of other but tells lies, the person is an òpùrọ́ (liar) who cannot be trusted or held accountable. Such a person would still not be an ọmọlúwàbí. And if he combines truth telling with respect but lacks a strong work ethic and is not diligent, then the person is ole (lazy) and cannot be considered an ọmọlúwàbí. The reason is that iṣẹ́ ni òògùn ìṣẹ́, ẹni tí kò ṣisẹ́, yóò jalè (“working hard is the panacea for poverty; anyone who does not work hard will become a thief”). This seems to suggest is that the ọmọlúwàbí is a well-rounded person who is not deficient in any area of conduct. This would then imply the ọmọlúwàbí is a person who, according to Awoniyi, “combines all virtues” (cited in Akanbi and Jekayinfa 2016, 14–15) and is hence morally perfect. But this is not so. Were it so, it would raise an all-important question of whether such a person can be found within the community of humans. The truth is that no one would qualify as an ọmọlúwàbí, as no one can be so virtuous at to be morally impeccable in all spheres of moral assessment. How should we then conceptualize the ọmọlúwàbí? The ọmọlúwàbí should be seen as someone who is good and dependable and is above board when it comes to what is acceptable within the society. Adebayo Faleti provides a critical insight in this respect. He asks us to think of the ọmọlúwàbí as being to the Yorùbá “what the word gentleman was to English in those days” (2009, 117). From the The World Book Dictionary, Faleti identifies the three attributes of a gentleman that correlates that of an ọmọlúwàbí: “a man of good family and social position; a man who is honourable and well bred; and a man of fine feelings or instinct shown by his behaviour and consideration for others (ibid, 117).

Operationalizing the Ọmọlúàbí Ethos

Operationalizing the ọmọlúwàbí ethos in the Nigerian politics would begin with the recognition of the place of morality in politics. Nigerian politics is zero-sum because it is amoral. The context of realpolitik in Nigeria, as we have seen from the preceding analysis, is one in which the end of juicy political offices and political power justifies the means of public immorality. This absence of a moral standard for public life in Nigeria has bred several dangerous consequences. The most glaring is the endangerment of Nigeria’s nascent democracy. Politics is now commonly perceived as a dirty game that only those who have guts and grit to commit atrocities can succeed in. The fundamental problem with Nigerian politics, Anele (2010) contends, “is the dominant attitude of our politicians to politics and public office, and their misunderstanding of what political leadership is about. Considering their propensity for ‘naira-and-kobo’ or ‘ówàmbẹ’̀ politics, it can easily be inferred that they are in politics to get their share of the ‘national cake.’” (2010).

In Nigeria, the separation of politics from morality spells doom, as the political landscape already has already demonstrated. We now have a situation of realpolitik in which people play by different rules or by no rules at all. The consequence of such is confusion. It is this confusion that we have been witnessing in Nigeria since the Fourth Republic began. According to Anele, we had a legislature which “spent approximately ₦532 billion to make 532 laws, making the laws one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, set of legislation in the world” (ibid.). Political office holders including ministers, governors, and state commissioners steal millions of money, which are then used to finance ostentatious lifestyles and buy expensive properties both home and abroad. O’Rourke underscores the importance of morality when he remarks that:

Morality is important to politics. Important is not the same as necessary. You can remove morality from politics like you can remove the head from a chicken and they’ll both keep going, politics much longer than the chicken. Politics will continue to run around, flap, and spurt blood forever without its morality. What’s important about morality in politics is us. We own the chicken farm. We must give our bird-brained, feather-headed politicians morals. Politicians love to think of themselves as “free-range” but they do not have the capacity to hunt or gather morals in the wild. If we fail to supply them with morality, politicians begin to act very scary in the barnyard (2010, 79–80).

In Nigeria, we have to make sure that public morality is upheld in all the areas we have discussed. To be able to do this, we need to uphold the ọmọlúwàbí ethos. The unfortunate thing is that this ethos is gradually losing its hold on the average Nigerian. Despite this however, there are still some individuals in Nigeria who can be regarded as ọmọlúwàbí. Many of them have been driven away from politics because there is no public morality and they are not willing to soil their hands in the political game. There is no doubting the fact that the political scene has been messed up. One way to salvage the debilitated political environment is the influx of the ọmọlúwàbí onto the political scene. This has the critical advantage of challenging the amorality of realpolitik in Nigeria. Such an influx must necessarily be hinged on the efficacy of a public enlightenment program that explores the critical relationship between public morality, patriotism and good governance.

There is a sense in which the fight for the soul of the Nigerian state must commence at the level of the family and its connection to the state. The family is one social institution that possesses the capacity to jumpstart the moral rearmament that is critical to democratic rejuvenation in Nigeria. Just as we saw in Aristotle, a virtuous individual is the function of a dedicated educational training that begins in the home, and with even more dedicated socializing agents—the parents and the teachers. In the traditional Yorùbá culture, after a child had been welcomed into the family through a proper naming ceremony, home training would begin. The naming must be proper name in the sense that ilé là ń wò ká tó sọmọ lórúkọ (“one considers the home before giving a child a name”). This is one of the reasons why children were always told to be careful not to soil the names of their families.

Yorùbá cultural tradition stresses that the parents are the first teachers of the children, instructing them on the proper way of relating to their parents, elders and grownups, people of the same age group, and other people in the community. Members of the extended family who normally lived together in the same compound were also involved in the upbringing process. The training in the family is a training in morality and it is a collective responsibility of the parents and also the individuals in the society. According to the Yorùbá, ẹni kan níí bímọ, ṣùgbọ́n igba ojú níí tọ́ ọ (“a child is given birth to a single person, but it is the entire community that takes responsibility for training the child”). The essence of this is to ground the child in codes of manners, conventions, customs, morals, superstitions, taboos and laws of the society that make one an ọmọlúwàbí. In consonance with this, Fadipe remarks that

It is chiefly within the extended family, that is, from members of his compound that a child obtains the bulk of his education as a member of the society. Since the child cannot be continuously under the eyes of his parents and elder brothers and sisters, various member of the extended family take hand in his education at one time or another (1970, 212).

The importance of this extended family training is that it afforded the child “frequent opportunities of various experiences not only of the practical effects of many items of the social codes but also of the unpleasant consequences of attending their infraction” (Fadipe 1970, 213). The way offenses are handled in the extended family presented the growing child the opportunity to learn. It was always a thing of shame in the family for the children to misbehave. It was seen as a failure on the part of the parents. Such parents were always reprimanded and advised to put their houses in order (Babatunde 1992). Children are trained from this foundational period because the Yorùbá do not recognize anyone who is found wanting in good character. For the Yorùbá, it is significant to foreground a good name more than the acquisition of material wealth; hence the, proverb: orúkọ rere sàn ju wúrà àti fàdákà lọ (“a good name is better than the possession of silver and gold”).

Contemporary society is unlike the traditional Yorùbá context. Due to increasing urbanization and industrialization, extended family members do not live together again as before. This has a significant impact on the child upbringing culture. What we see today are parents sending their children to boarding school before the age of seven. This does not allow the children to have first-hand training and education from their parents. Such children suffer alienation from their parents and the community that ought to constitute the socializing agents. It is this inability to learn from the family that accounts for the inability to develop certain social virtues, which eventually turns them into social misfits.

From the forgoing, it can be deduced that the problem with upholding public morality in Nigeria is a foundational problem. It is essentially the failure of the family to rise to its responsibility in the moral upbringing of children. It then becomes imperative that in order to operationalize the ọmọlúwàbí ethos, significant policy attention must necessarily be focused on childhood and primary education.

The second level at which the fight for the soul of Nigeria is fundamental has to do with public education and enlightenment. In this case, the success or failure of this enlightenment campaign would derive from the intersection of the collaboration between the families, the government and its agencies (like the National Orientation Agency [NOA]), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media. Education plays a significant role in the formation of an ethically and morally stable mature human person. It should be noted that childhood education is important in initiating moral development. There are three aspects to the traditional Yorùbá education as identified by Olaiya, namely, ẹ̀kọ́ ilé (home training), ẹ̀kọ́ iṣẹ́ (vocational training) and ẹ̀kọ́ ìlú (civic training) (2017, 676). All these are relevant indices for assessing whether an individual is an ọmọlúwàbí. Home training is very important because, as already noted, it is foundational. However, home training alone may not take care of the vocational and civil aspects of the education. This can be taken care of through public education. However, since virtue character is more important, from the point of view of the Yorùbá, there is the need for public education to also complement what is being done at the household level by including in the school curriculum ethics and moral thinking. It is important to note that childhood education does not take place only at the household level. It also takes place at the school level and will serve to reinforce what is learn at the household level. Most children enter primary schools at the age of five to six years. These are still formative years in the life of the children that the society must take into consideration.

Ethics is the foundation for our human relationship to one another and to the world around us. Its purpose is the preservation of human dignity and the conditions for living a good life. The objective of including ethics and values education in the curriculum of education at the childhood level is

to stimulate ethical reflection, awareness, responsibility, and compassion in children, provide children with insight into important ethical principles and values, equip them with intellectual capacities (critical thinking and evaluation, reflection, discovery, understanding, decision-making, non-cognitive abilities like compassion) for responsible moral judgment, to develop approaches to build a classroom or school environment as an ethical community, and to reflectively situate individuals into other local and global communities with a mission to contribute to the common good. All this enables pupils to overcome prejudice, discrimination, and other unethical practices and attitudes (Ćurko et al 2010, 6).

The imperative of moral education is consequent upon the fact that education in the strict sense, which does not involve moral education, may produce such qualities as linguistic facility, mathematical acumen and intelligence but these are not virtues since they are not character traits. Though these qualities have great human values that are required for societal development, it is possible for individuals to possess them and still be immoral, and consequently become unfit to be called a person in the society. For as Afolayan rightfully notes,

Human are to strive to become ọmọlúwàbí or a good person. And to achieve this state, attention is not paid to outward configuration of beauty (even though the Yoruba are noted for their unique sense of fashion) but rather an inward development of character… this is the moral import of being called Ènìyàn, someone with character of iwa. S when the Yoruba say “O ò kì í ṣe ènìyàn” (you are not a person), that statement is meant to down grade such individual from personhood to the state of an animal. This immediately reveals that personhood is earned within the context of the Yoruba moral universe. It is a positive ontological progression, a moral maturation in time, from a mere individual to a dignified ọmọlúwàbí (2017, 886).

What can uphold the ọmọlúwàbí ethos, and consequently public morality, is putting in place and sustaining and educational paradigm that involves moral aims, that is, the promotion of desirable and admirable character traits. What this indicates is the need to include virtue ethics in our educational curriculum. The purpose is to habituate the individual in virtues such as integrity, self-control, patience, respect, kindness, and so on through teaching. That this should begin at childhood is underscored by the assumption that character habituation begins at childhood. Once these virtues are ingrained in the child, virtue becomes a lifelong pursuit for him or her.


The basic thrust of this paper is that the Yorùbá ọmọlúwàbí ethos can be a template for rethinking the glaring lack of public morality in Nigerian politics. Given that Nigeria has had five back-to-back elections since the country entered to the fourth republic in 1999, and the fact that there are democratic structures already in place, we can say that Nigeria has entered into a democratic dispensation. What is left is to ensure a democratic consolidation that will facilitate the empowerment of the social contract between Nigerians and their government. One significant dynamics in this consolidation process is public morality and how its presence or absence affects democratic institution building. This paper has shown that the realities of election rigging, violence, vote selling and buying, embezzlement, and the flagrant abuse of power that define the Nigerian democratic experience demonstrate lack of public morality. This, we argued, can be remedied through a policy attention to morality as a significant core of politics. This is what Aristotle and the Yorùbá ọmọlúwàbí ethos demonstrate. The Yorùbá and Aristotle have similar conceptions that ground character habituation as being central to public morality. This challenges the Nigerian state to rethink its policies on public education and public enlightenment. Charity, it becomes clear now, begins at home. And home is where a child learns how to deal with others in the public.


1 http://www.ccb.gov.ng/
2 This quotation of Aristotle from Stienberger’s (2000) suits my purpose better than the rendering in Crisp (2004).

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Olayinka Oyeleye
Department of Philosophy
University of Ibadan Nigeria


This paper explores a narrative path towards foregrounding what it calls a gender-relative morality as a core dimension of female subordination. It takes a feminist approach to ethics, which stresses specifically the political enterprise of eradicating systems and structures of male domination and female subordination in both the public and the private domains. The theoretical implications of Feminist narrative ethics is then applied to the philosophical imports of Yorùbá proverbs about women as a way to tease out how female subordination is grounded in Yorùbá ontology and ethics. Specifically, the essay interrogates the ethical and aesthetical trajectory that leads from ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty), a Yoruba moral dictum, to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin ([good moral] character is a woman’s beauty). Within this transition, there is the possibility that the woman is excluded from the category of those properly referred to as ọmọlúwàbí.

Keywords: Ìwà l’ẹwà, Feminist ethics, Yoruba proverbs, Ọmọlúwàbí, Gender-relative morality


Ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty), a Yoruba moral dictum, suggests an inconsistency in the division of Western value theory into “ethics” (as arising from morality) and “aesthetics” (as arising from art). In the Yorùbá worldview, as the adage goes, moral character and the aesthetic of a person are inextricably linked. Interestingly, observations about the female body, consciously or unconsciously, assume an association with bodily aesthetics, so much so that beauty is linked with the feminine. This association of beauty with the feminine has led to an extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà into ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin which translates as “[good moral] character is a woman’s beauty.” While the Yorùbá worldview places enormous emphasis on the moral character of a person, its emphases on the moral character of a woman however surpasses that of men. Could this imbalance be an indication of female subordination?

This paper takes a feminist approach to ethics, which stresses specifically the political enterprise of eradicating systems and structures of male domination and female subordination in both the public and the private domains. Feminist ethics has significantly benefitted from the influence of a narrative approach; specifically, “narrative ethicists take the practices of storytelling, listening, and bearing empathetic and careful witness to these stories, to be central to understanding and evaluating not just the unique circumstances of particular lives, but the wider moral contexts within which we all exist. In telling stories, narrative ethicists suggest, we both create and reveal who we think we are as moral agents and as persons” (Gotlib 2018, online). This paper utilizes the narrative approach to ethics in its attempt to describe the gender relativity of morality in Yorùbá ontology. The story it tells is woven around prominent proverbs and moral themes within the Yorùbá cultural context.


Egbinadé and Àkànní are secret lovers. Egbinadé, as her name suggests, is an epitome of beauty and elegance, a constant sight for Akanni’s sore eyes. It so happened that the entire village is let in on their secret when Egbinadé begins to metamorphose. Àkànní has put Egbinadé in the family way. Àkànní panics. He initially denies involvement with Egbinadé, but following threats from Ẹgbinadé’s father, an Ayélála Priest, and afraid of the consequences of his action, Àkànní admits he had truly been involved in a secret affair with Egbinadé and had kept it secret because he is betrothed to Àdùké, the daughter of Lánínwún, a wealthy village merchant who has already taken the matter to the elders council.

Àkànní’s decision to accept the pregnancy and take responsibility is applauded by the elders council and deemed honorable. It is said that he had “repaired his ọmọlúwàbí.” Egbinadé’s mother brings to the fore the question of her daughter’s fate should Àkànní be left to marry his betrothed rather than her daughter. She wonders why no one questioned his “out of character” act, and how it seems too easy for him to redeem his ọmọlúwàbí. An elder within the council responds that Àkànní confided in him that Egbinadé is not a virgin, hence she is not chaste and that her ìwà (character) was not in accordance with the culture.

The Ìyálóde who had been all the while silent interjects, and poignantly asks if it is in line with the culture for Àkànní, who is already betrothed, to engage another girl sexually. She also reminds the council that Egbinadé’s pregnancy is an act perpetrated by two consenting adults and with àse (a seal) from Elédùà. Furthermore, the Ìyálóde opines that, both parties ought to get married since the betrothed is not pregnant yet. Aṣípa, the secretary of the council, vehemently antagonizes Ìyálóde’s remarks. He asks if Ìyálóde would have raised these objections if the betrothed is her daughter. Ìyálóde retorts in similar fashion: would the Aṣípa have passed the same judgment if Egbinadé is his daughter? The Aṣípa replies in defense that his daughter is “well taught” and could not have found herself in such an ugly situation. He concludes that Egbinadé has brought ìtìjú (shame) to her family.

Ọt̀ únba, also an elder within the council, interjects with the argument that as a man, Àkànní’s sexual morality is not as questionable as Egbinadé’s. He concludes by suggesting that Àkànní should marry both Egbinadé and his betrothed. Àkànní’s mother blatantly refuses. She claims that her family has agreed to take the child and can do no more. Egbinadé’s father then reminds the council that Àkànní has perpetrated an immoral act tantamount to eèwọ̀ (a taboo) which requires propitiation. The Kábíyèsí then intervenes at this point to douse the rising tension.1


The attempt to give epistemic credibility to the stories women tell—as narratives, and narratives as a feminist method—found an initial grounding in the consciousness-raising discourses and discussions capitalized upon by second-wave feminists. Women were encouraged to exchange stories of their everyday lives, to make public, through these group discussions, what had been hitherto considered private. Thus, when stories, for example, of sexual relations and sexual orientations, which one would regard as belonging to the private sphere, were brought to the fore and made public at these discussions, they initiated series of events and incidences that precipitated the collapse of the walls between their private and public worlds so much that the personal became political and the political personal.

In the view of Catherine MacKinnon, “As Marxist method is dialectical materialism, feminist method is consciousness raising: the collective critical reconstruction of the meaning of women’s social experience, as women live through” (1989, 83). In the light of this view, comprehending women’s situation as it is lived through becomes the most visible quality of this method. MacKinnon further opines that “the analysis that the personal is the political came out of consciousness raising” (Ibid, 95), and is characterized by four interconnected facets. First, women as a group are dominated by men as a group and subsequently as individuals. Second, women’s subordination in the society is not as a result of biology or personal nature. Third, gender division and its inherent sex division of labour not only influence but determine how women feel in relationships. Fourth and perhaps most controversial, “since a woman’s problems are not hers individually but those of women as a whole, they cannot be addressed except as a whole” (Ibid).

Responding a few years earlier to some of the points raised by MacKinnon, bell hooks contends that “[o]utspoken socialist-feminists, most of whom are white women… [had] not worked to raise the consciousness of women collectively. Much of their energy has been spent… discussing the connections between Marxism and feminism, or explaining to other feminist activists that socialist-feminism is the best strategy for revolution” (1986, 136). Raising concerns about how much visibility black women feminist theorists got, hooks argues that

Although they make references to the work of a few privileged voices (that is to say voices they choose to listen to, for example Audre Lourde, Barbara Smith), for the most part theoretical writing by less known or unknown women of colour is ignored, particularly if it does not articulate the prevailing ideology (Ibid, 126).

Thus, while on the one hand, consciousness raising was deemed fit enough to become a method, it was on the other hand criticized for its exclusion and silencing of some voices to such an extent that womanhood becomes misconstrued and the needs of women misrepresented. Such contradictions and contentions as this, has been the tale feminist scholarship has had to tell. Feminist ethics as a broad field, and narrative ethics as one if its sub fields, has been no less contentious.

Feminist Ethics and Narrative

Feminist ethics, initially understood mainly as both a reaction to, and departure from, the dominant trends in moral philosophy, is now a fully developed and well-ingrained subfield within the broader field of ethics. Feminist philosophers have fared increasingly well in their mandated responsibility of contributing positively to issues of urgent moral concerns, especially such that can make sense of women’s experience as moral agents, as well as advancing alternative moral theories to utilitarianism, deontology, and in some aspects, contractarianism. Howbeit, the lines of demarcation between the broader field of ethics and the subfield of feminist ethics have greatly diminished.

Feminist ethics shares with feminism the common goal of understanding and eliminating the oppression of women. Samantha Brennan (1999) notes however that it is not just any theory, especially any which is able to reach the conclusion that women are the victims of wrongdoing, that will suffice as a moral theory from a feminist perspective. Brennan argues, for instance, that few feminists endorse utilitarianism as a moral theory because of its assumption that the equal treatment of women would bring about greater overall happiness. This, Brennan contends, appears too feeble a basis for such an important moral claim. As she sees it, since the utility principle underlying utilitarianism defends an action as right insofar as it produces the greatest happiness of the greatest number, then if the continued subordination of women yielded more happiness than the emancipation of women, such subordination of women was morally more preferable to the emancipation of women. Brennan further argues that for an ethical theory to count as feminist, it must not only get the answers right, it must also get the answers in the right way. And one good way to get the right answers, according to her, is by turning to women’s experience. We shall elaborate further on Brennan’s position.

Recall that feminist ethics began as a movement against mainstream ethics which was seen as predominantly the domain of upper-class white men who constructed ethical theories that reflected, naturally, the experiences of the group. These ethical theories, by implication, left out or at best made unintelligible the experiences of the “others”, especially women. It is from this perspective that this traditional moral philosophy was considered “mainstream.” Brennan argues that ethics in this form is done in at least two ways:

First, mainstream moral theory has focused on ethics for dealing with realms of human life in which men predominate. Thus, we have an ethics for the marketplace or public sphere and no ethics for the family. Second, in areas of human life in which both men and women participate, it is the experiences of men within these realms to which traditional moral theory has been held accountable (1999, 861).

Thus, in a bid to overcome the limitation posed by the dominant male-centered moral philosophy, feminist ethics initiated alternative moral theories that possess the capacity to accommodate and understand the experiences of women as moral agents. As a result of this, “feminist ethics has become associated with an ethics of lived, concrete experiences which takes most seriously women’s experiences of morality” (Ibid). To this end, Rosemarie Tong defines feminist ethics as “an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink those aspects of traditional Western ethics that depreciate or devalue women’s moral experience” (2001, 105). To further this point, Alison Jagger remarks that feminist ethics “begins from the convictions that the subordination of women is morally wrong and that the moral experience of women is as worthy of respect as that of men” (2001, 528).

From the foregoing, feminist ethical theories can be said to share two central aims, one grounded in theory, and the other in lived experience. The first aim can be deduced from Tong’s definition of feminist ethics which is geared towards not only achieving a theoretical understanding of the oppression of women, but also proposing frameworks for ending the oppression. The second aim, taken as a point of convergence between Tong’s and Jagger’s positions, seeks to advance an interpretation of morality which is based on women’s moral experience(s). The first aim, according to Brennan, is normative; she calls it the “feminist conclusion requirement.” The second is descriptive, and is for Brennan, the “women’s experience requirement.” Brennan favors the descriptive approach above the normative approach because she claims the normative approach by itself is insufficient to tell us what makes a moral theory feminist. She however does not seem to have any patience with the possibility of a convergence of both positions in a manner that enables the normative approach to create an encouraging platform for the use of narrative as a medium to give a voice to the experience of women across all cultures and creeds. I will next consider the concept of narrative and how it intersects feminist ethics, especially in relation to the women’s experience requirement.

Peter Brooks provides a succinct description of narrative:

Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semi-conscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed. The narrative impulse is as old as our oldest literature: myth and folktale appear to be stories we recount in order to explain and understand where no other form of explanation will work (1992, 3)

A narrative then, in its most simplistic form, is a story. It is the story of particular cases, and for Raanan Gillon, it is “highly specific and highly culture bound, for every culture also has its story (2001, 11). Kathryn Montgomery Hunter argues similarly that “[i]n using the word ‘narrative’ somewhat interchangeably with ‘story’ I mean to designate a more or less coherent written, spoken, or (by extension) enacted account of occurrences, whether historical or fictional” (cited in Gotlib, 2018). By introducing epistemically and morally rich stories of what it is like to be a non-ideal agent in a non-ideal world, Anna Gotlib concludes that feminist philosophers accomplish the broadening and deepening of what it means to be engaged in moral philosophy: “This turn toward including, confronting, and challenging the oppressions of women (and other oppressed and often silenced populations), serves as the beginning of the intersection between narrative and feminist ethics” (Gotlib, 2018).

Committed to a unified purpose of challenging oppressive structures and, essentially, the oppressions of women, feminist theorists have generally interpreted the lived experiences of women, their personal stories, as blooming and advantageous ways of theorizing morally problematic situations. This indeed is what this paper intends to do with the fictional but not-too-far-from-reality story we opened with. I will analyze the narrative by interrogating the works of some African philosophers, mainly works categorized under the rubric of African ethics. It is no coincidence, we should note, that the precedence in this field has been set by male theorists.

Back to the Prologue

A central assumption in ethical theorizing across all societies is that the concepts of good/bad, right/wrong are partly facilitated by that society’s awareness of what constitutes a good life for both the community and its members. In other words, a society’s ethical theories could be founded on that which a community or culture views as entailed in its conception of what is good or bad, right or wrong. Of course, this assumption solidly grounds moral relativism since what communities might regard as constituting “the good” might differ. As a matter of interest, how patriarchal communities, amongst others, arrive at its moral standard is worth exploring, largely because, to echo the voice of Susan Sherwin, “while there is not any one right way for a community to arrive at its standards, there are ways in which the process can clearly go wrong” (cited in Brennan, 1999: 804).

One of such ways is what this paper terms “gender-relative morality”. Gender-relative morality (GRM) can be described as differing standards of morality accorded to persons or groups on the basis of their biological sex, race, class, or otherwise and is inadvertently oppressive in nature. It is a morality that privileges a particular sex, group or class over another. Gender-relative morality differs from the popular assumptions of gendered morality (or of morality as gendered) in the sense that while theorists of morality as gendered argue that women and men have different moral capacities, or generate discourse about which sex or gender is more moral, GRM drives these arguments deeper into the fundamental dynamics of the inequalities in moral standards as it applies to persons or groups arbitrarily bifurcated into ethical categories. The fundamental argument of GRM is simply that gendered categories have somehow found a way into the structure of morality itself to the end that the same act results into different consequences for its actors. It bears slight resemblance to moral contextualism, which argues that moral judgments are context-dependent in the sense that what is morally acceptable in a particular context may have a different truth value in another context (Irele & Afolayan, 2016). The point of departure for GRM, however, is the claim that what is good and acceptable is not only context-dependent, but also gender-sensitive. We will return subsequently to this as we critically analyze our narrative on Egbinadé and Àkànní through the thoughts of some African philosophers on the nature of African ethics.

We begin our interrogation with the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu. In the chapter on custom and morality in his book, Cultural Universals and Particulars, Wiredu interrogates the Christian understanding of sexual morality, and the Akan perception of it. While Christianity considers premarital sex as distinctly immoral, the Akan consider it a required form of relationship before marriage. According to him, “Considerable mutual knowledge between both principals, including carnal knowledge, is regarded as a commonsensical requirement. Indeed, prior intimacy is viewed not only as educative but also as pragmatic. Akan men and women usually seek visible signs of fertility before committing themselves to the union in question. Thus, far from something like pregnancy before marriage being looked upon as a scandal, it is welcomed as an auspicious omen” (Wiredu 1996, 73). Wiredu further states that “if a man,…should unceremoniously put a woman in the family way… he would be declared to have ‘stolen’ her, and would be liable to quite severe fines and concerted and equally severe reprimands from all concerned on both kinship sides” (Ibid). How the Akan deal with a randy man seems similar to how those in the Egbinadé’s narrative dealt with Àkànní’s “misdemeanor.” Recall that in the narrative, Egbinadé’s father had reminded the council that Àkànní had perpetrated an immoral act tantamount to èèwọ̀ which required propitiation. The pertinent question here becomes: Are there similar propitiations in any culture that could have alleviated, or even avert, Egbinadé’s predicament? Does èèwọ,̀ a significant species of Yorùbá moral language, possess the cultural strength to avert troubles?

Èèwọ,̀ according to Bewaji, is a subcategory of ẹṣ̀ ẹ̀ (translated literally as sin) in Yorùbá ethics. The concept of èèwọ̀ has two aspects, the religious and the secular. The first is translated as tabu (taboo) by theological writers on African religions. The second aspect relates to morality. For Bewaji,

Èèwọ,̀ conceived in this sense, means things that are wrong to do and for which sanctions will be incurred. When one says ‘‘sanctions,’’ this is not to be construed as meaning punishment formally enforced, as in legal punishment. It may be in the form of simply losing stature, status, or face in the community, whereas in the religious sense, some atonement or sacrifice has to be made to assuage the unseen forces that may have been offended (2004, 400).

Let us further complicate the moral implication of losing or regaining stature or status through Kwame Gyekye’s claim that African ethics is an ethic of duty and not of rights. For him, “In this morality duties trump rights, not the other way around, as it is in the moral systems of Western societies. The attitude to, or performance of, duties is induced by a consciousness of needs rather than of rights. In other words, people fulfill—and ought to fulfill—duties to others not because of the rights of these others, but because of their needs and welfare” (Gyekye, online). This duty ethics is usually contrasted to consequentialism.

Consequentialism takes the worth of any moral action as being dependent on the outcome of the action. So, going back to our narrative, Egbinadé and Àkànní probably had sexual gratification and pleasure from being with someone one is emotionally connected with as an initial outcome of their act, but an unplanned pregnancy became a subsequent outcome. For Àkànní then, what became the consequence of the subsequent action? A premature insertion into fatherhood maybe, but more importantly, it was a consequence which depended on some form of duty or responsibility as a determinant of the rightness or wrongness of his action and, as we saw in the narrative, his willingness to accept responsibility made the outcome of the act and considerably the act itself morally justifiable for him to such extent that he was seen to have “repaired” his ọmọlúwàbí—the Yorùbá ethical concept suggestive of a socially and morally refined person with a high sense of responsibility and social integrity.

While it was easy for Àkànní through an act of duty to make amends for his wrong and thus regain his social integrity as well as redeem his family’s reputation, Egbinadé was said to have brought ìtìjú and ẹg̀ bin to herself and her family. In Bewaji’s analysis, “[t]he word ẹ̀gbin, with but a variation in tonal marks, expresses two polar ideas. On the one hand, [it refers to] superlative beauty in a person or thing…. On the other hand, when an act is despicable and odious to the senses, capable, so to speak, of causing nausea, it is said to be ẹ̀gbin” (2004, 400). The Yorùbá moral universe, Bewaji contends, is calibrated around the degrees of moral decadence that members of the community are cautioned against, and so Egbinadé, so called for reason of her superlative beauty, has by her “despicable act” brought upon her family and self, ẹ̀gbin—a loss of respect, humiliation, dishonor; a striking contrast to not just her name but to the implication of the same moral act in the case of Àkànní. This paradoxically complements the Yorùbá proverb: “Ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu. Whoever gives birth to a beautiful girl gives birth to trouble. (A beautiful girl will eventually cause her parents a great deal of unease or disturbance)” (Owomoyela, 2005: 479).

The paradoxical idea that egbin and ẹg̀ bin seem to suggest (note the tonal marks), corresponds with the Yorùbá moral dictum that, ìwà l’ẹwà (character is beauty). In discussing the Yorùbá aesthetics of character, Afolayan notes that “ìwà.., at a purely etymological level, derives from wà (to be or to exist)… Thus, ìwà and ẹwà both reference a fundamental ontological category about essence and existence” (Afolayan 2017, 885). While this is inconsistent with the norm in Western value theory—in which “ethics” (as arising from moral character) and aesthetics (as arising from art) are two distinct fields, it draws a critical attention to the concepts of “beauty” and “character.” Reading these concepts as a feminist prompts the need to critically examine how both concepts can be said to be the essence of a woman’s existence.

Examining the relation between beauty and morality in the Igbo worldview, Nkiru Nzegwu (2004) describes the prenuptial rites of nkpu as a validation of the nubile pubescent development of girls. This entailed a period of seclusion which could range from one to six months. During this period, the girls being prepared for marriage were prohibited from working; rather, they were pampered, and sumptuously fed three times a day. “The enforced inactivity expedited weight gain as the girls only engaged in body grooming, beautification, and dancing” (2004, 418). Nzegwu notes likewise that

In the pre-1960 language of female beautification in rural areas, to assert that a maiden “na cho mma” (literally, “is seeking beauty”) is to proclaim that she is engaged in her toilette; indeed, that she is making-up, grooming her hair, or decorating her body with uli designs. These acts of beautification translate as “i cho mma,” explicitly naming a subset of acts whose goal is to create mma (beauty) (Ibid, 417).

This process of creating beauty and the prenuptial beautification described above seems to complement Susan Bordo’s thoughts about Western culture: “To preserve personal beauty, woman’s glory!” (1993, 18). Nzegwu further adds a thought which ties together the Igbo and Yorùbá idea about beauty: “the idea of beauty is intricately intertwined with morality, since societal well-being and progress set the standard for the good life” (Ibid, 419). Nzegwu’s feminist intervention draws our attention to a critical ambiguity about beauty and the Igbo ambivalence about it. Much like the Yorùbá proverb, ojú kì í rí arẹwà kó má kí I [The eyes never see a beautiful person without acknowledging him or her] (Owomoyela 2005, 447), the Igbo allude to the ideology of this proverb in the saying that enenebe eje olu which also, for Nzegwu, connotatively captures the idea of admiration triggered by a beautiful form. However, she notes that the clause “eje olu” (fails to go to work) emphasizes the latent social problem that could emanate that such a continuous admiration of “peerless beauty” might occasion. In the Vindication of Women’s Rights, Mary Wollstonecraft warns of enduring problems arising from this— objectification of women, unreasonable fixation with beauty, societal comparison of wits in men to beauty in women, and so on.

Much like the Yorùbá proverb earlier cited, “ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu (whoever gives birth to a beautiful girl gives birth to trouble), being beautiful by itself immediately becomes a source of problem not only for a society that has become irrationally fixated on beauty, but also for the parents of any beautiful girl. How difficult it must be then for the woman who embodies this peerless beauty, and who has to endure the leering gaze of the society. A beautiful lady must therefore mediate the difficult line between an aesthetic appreciation of her beauty and an arrogant flaunting of it. Within this context, therefore, it is not difficult to understand why the Igbo, like the Yorùbá, place greater social incentive on good character.

It is interesting that Nzegwu references fables and songs as instructional tools which insert a moral basis into the idea of beauty. She cites the example of a 1970 song by a popular female vocalist, Nellie Uchendu, about the physical beauty of a girl called Ude and of Ude’s beauty as free from moral defects because she is hardworking, strong, and immensely generous. Hence, Ude is considered “ezigbo nwa” (the good child). A similar occurrence is seen in
Yorùbá popular culture. The popular juju musician, King Sunny Ade, admonishes that “ìwà ni ẹ wò, ẹ má torí ẹwà f’àya sílé (character should be that one looks out for, do not for beauty’s sake marry a wife). Haruna Isola, the àpàlà musician, also proclaimed, “bí obìnrin bá dára tí ò ní ìwà, mi ò lè fi kọ́bọ̀ kan àbọ̀ fẹ́ ẹ (if a woman is good looking but lacks good character, I cannot marry her with a dime and half). The attention given to the moral character of a woman, as represented in these songs, enables us to arrive at the rhetorical extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin (“[good moral] character is a woman’s beauty.” Although the moral character and the beauty of a person in the Yorùbá worldview are inextricably linked, it does not seem far-fetched to argue that any and all talk about beauty is almost always, consciously and unconsciously, linked to talk about the feminine and about the female body. Thus, when we say, ìwà l’ẹwà, we are essentially saying ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin.

Much as the Yorùbá concept of ọmọlúwàbí demands that one pays attention to one’s appearance and dressing, the rhetorical extension of the dictum ìwà l’ẹwà, to ìwà l’ẹwà obìnrin brings us to the realization that the emphasis on both beauty and character is placed more on the woman than the man. Recall that the proverb “ẹni tó bí arẹwà-á bí ìyọnu” suggests that managing both beauty and good character could be problematic. Yet again, “ojú kì í rí arẹwà kó má kí i (the eyes never see a beautiful person without acknowledging him or her)” is another proverb that emphasizes aesthetic pleasures in Yorùbá worldview, and particularly the beauty associated with the feminine. In spite of these complexities, emphasis is yet placed on the moral character, particularly the chastity of a woman, as opposed to that of a man, as has been made evident in the analysis of the narrative on Egbinadé and Àkànní. Let us buttress this argument further with some more Yorùbá proverbs.

1. Obìnrin sọ ìwà nù, ó ní òun ò lórí ọkọ. When a woman is deficient in character, she blames her marital woes on ill-luck” (Sotunde 2016, 384)
2. Gbogbo obìnrin ló ń gbéṣẹ̀, èyí tó bá ṣe ti ẹ̀ láṣejù laráyé ń pè láṣewó. All women are unfaithful; only those who know no moderation are put down as whores” (Owomoyela 2005, 170)
3. Obìnrin tí kò níwà, ìyá rẹ̀ ní ḿ bá ṣorogún. A woman without good character will have only her mother as co-wife. (A woman without good character is unlikely to find a husband)” (Ibid. 271)

Proverbs 1 and 3 are not too far apart in meaning as they both lay emphasis on a woman’s moral character as an essential prerequisite for marriage, while proverb 2 generalizes all women as adulterous, leaving out once again
Ìwà l’ẹwà: Towards a Yorùbá Feminist Ethics 289 the category of persons with whom they copulate. Being a patriarchal society, it becomes more or less an entitlement for men to have more than one conjugal partner, with the implication that the responsibility for chastity is left to the woman. This is clear in our narrative when Egbinadé was openly ridiculed as not being chaste since she was not a virgin. Àkànní’s chastity went unquestioned. This is a clear case of moral bias on the basis of gender difference. We will revisit to this proverb very soon.

We return again to the ethics of duty proposed by Gyekye, Wiredu, and Bewaji.2 We consider first Akanni’s situation in the light of what W. D. Ross calls prima facie duties. “Ross argues that there are seven prima facie duty types, and each is an obligatory actual duty unless there is a conflict with a greater prima facie duty” (Hallgarth 2001, 84). The prima facie duties include:

1. Fidelity: Duty to keep promises and commitments.
2. Reparation: Duty to correct past wrongs.
3. Non maleficence: Duty to prevent harm.
4. Beneficence: Duty to increase general pleasure.
5. Justice: Duty to prevent unfair distribution of benefits. 6. Gratitude: Duty to repay kindness, and
7. Self-improvement: Duty to better oneself.

Following from these seven duties, we can presume Àkànní’s dilemma of which duty to choose from or what order to follow: fidelity to his betrothed or to Egbinadé who is to become mother of his child, or reparation to his betrothed or to Egbinadé? A very important question surfaces here: does Àkànní truly possess the right to choice? Was it just pure randiness that led to his secret love affair with Egbinadé or was theirs another case of hopeful lovers? Considering also that marriage as a social custom amongst the Yorùbá is usually between families and not so much the individuals, the Àkànní’s family marriage agreement with Àdùké’s (the betrothed) family is sufficient for the family to insist on fidelity. Any other option might compromise the essence of their ọmọlúwàbí in the community. In other words, the family “lose face.” Could it have been a different tale if Àkànní had the right of choice regarding his life partner rather than his family’s choice? Could it have been different if individual aspirations were not so strongly entrenched in society’s established institutions?3 Could it have been a different tale should rights trump duty? Let us consider Egbinadé’s circumstance in the light of duty and rights.

There are several social problems that emerge from Egbinadé’s existential predicament that affect not only her as an individual member of the community, but equally affect the society itself. Being a young expectant mother, her initial challenges might include having her formal education truncated. Only a strong financial support or welfare system could restore the possibility of formal education for her. It could also turn out that she finds herself picking up a trade or job so as to support her new status as an unmarried mother. She enters into reproduction and production all at once, attempting the arduous task of making two extreme ends meet. She could also possibly become confined to such reproductive duties like caring for her child at the expense of her productive duties of becoming a vital hand in the community’s workforce. In a sense, Egbinadé might have to give up on her duty to others (her baby and the community) if she ever hopes to regain her dynamics of self-realization. In addition, she finds herself bound to the moral duties of communal norms, a set of do’s and don’ts that gives right to the unborn fetus over her own choices. For example, her rights to choose — what to eat, where to go, what time of the day to go out— might have to be given up as duty towards her unborn baby.

In considering the relationship between the individual and the community, Bewaji points out that “one can boldly affirm that the wellspring of morality and ethics in African societies is the pursuit of a balance of individual, with communal, well-being…African cultures extol the virtues of community… communal factors often take precedence over individual rights or interests” (2004, 396). But, according to him, putting the mater this way does not in any way limit the responsibility that the community owes its members. Bewaji raises the question of what this responsibility is but never quite answers it explicitly. He however quotes Gbadegesin on the notion that “in giving up one’s interests thus, one is also sure that the community will not disown one and that one’s wellbeing will be its concern” (Bewaji 2004, 397). We ask here: what wellbeing does the community offer to the woman who has had to give up personal rights, duty to self, endured shame while she watches the one who has “stolen” her— to use Wiredu’s word—vindicated upon payment of some fine or by an act religious propitiation? Since the Yorùbá society is a patriarchal one, what might happen is that Egbinadé might be made to realize, in some sense, that “the child isn’t hers,” and thus be asked to “give up the child” into the custody of its paternal family.

It is difficult, if one reads as a woman, to see how an ethic of duty trumps the ethic of rights, and why communal factors should take precedence over
individual rights within a society where morality is gender relative. One might argue on the contrary that morality cannot but be duty based in a communal society where the individual is subordinate to the community. But then this is exactly the issue that forces a critical reflection on African feminist ethicists in terms of a woman’s relation to her community and to herself. While there is no doubt that community is significant in an individual’s sense of self-realization, there is also no doubt that it is an individual that is equally responsible for her moral development. The question would be in what sense a golden mean between duty and rights based ethics could be fashioned that will enable women’s voice and autonomy.

A Note on Adultery, Abortion Rights and the Ontological Status of the Fetus

The right of a woman to choose when, where, how, with whom, and even whether to give birth, has long enjoyed feminist support, particularly within the context of liberal political philosophy in the West. This right over one’s body was picked up consequently in campaigns for access to birth control as well as abortion. With its emphasis on women’s rights to control what happens to their bodies, where the body is seen somewhat as separate from the self but owned by the self, abortion was therefore viewed as a morally permissible act.

Interestingly, such arguments that feminists adduce in favour of abortion and abortion rights cover much of the necessary theoretical grounds for other moral dilemmas associated primarily with women, like prostitution and adultery. Laurie Shrage discusses the views of Margo St. James, founder of “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” (COYOTE), a civil rights organization for prostitutes. St. James’ claim was simply that the rights to privacy and control of one’s own body should ultimately defend legal access to prostitution. Shrage articulates this argument to imply that “criminalization of prostitution is responsible for most of the troubling consequences of prostitution, just as the criminalization of abortion was responsible for many injuries women risked to have illegal abortion” (1994, x). St James argues further that “just as laws restricting abortion are aimed at controlling women’s reproductive capacity, laws restricting prostitution ultimately aim to control women’s sexuality;” hence, “laws prohibiting prostitution are just as obstructive to women’s pursuit of sexual expression and economic opportunity as laws prohibiting abortion” (Ibid). For St. James therefore, women who choose to go into prostitution do not only have the volition to express their sexuality and rights over their own bodies, but also express their own choice of economic empowerment, one in which they derive obvious job satisfaction as well as a means of livelihood, and to think of this choice as degrading or condescending is to “buy into sexist double standards of sexual morality that limit women to sexual abstinence or amorous sexual self-sacrifice” (Ibid). St. James brilliantly sums up a gender-relative morality seen here as the masculinization of certain viewpoints and the feminization of other viewpoints.

The implication of St. James’ arguments for Yorùbá feminist ethics can be drawn from the literal meaning of the second of the three proverbs earlier cited—Gbogbo obìnrin ló ń gbéṣẹ̀, èyí tó bá ṣe ti ẹ̀ láṣejù laráyé ń pè láṣẹ́wó (All women are unfaithful; only those who know no moderation are put down as whores). While this proverb suggests that women willfully engage in extra-marital affairs and some others prostitution, extra-marital affairs are however frowned upon for the woman and not the man. In his analysis of sexuality in Yorùbá culture, Olugboyega Alaba remarks that “[a] woman could have a secret concubine but she was not permitted by custom to be living with him” (Alaba 2004, 6). The community, in other words, frowns at such brazen demonstration of sexuality. We cannot therefore say that even the ascription of unfaithfulness to women translates into a cultural recognition of a right to their body as duty once again trumps bodily rights for the woman. But the man operates by a different moral law since he is not only free to marry other wives but is also at liberty to grow a concubinage. We see again the moral double standard indicative of a morality that is gender relative.

The major controversy in the abortion argument4 is not so much the woman’s right over her body as it is the ontological status of the fetus with regards to personhood. This construal of the controversy then raises a question like: Does personhood begin at conception, during pregnancy, at birth or after birth? To add a metaphysical complication: Can one ascribe personhood to a being whose existence has been foretold but who has not been conceived? While we may be tempted to answer in the negative, we should pay critical attention to the list of expectations and requirements—the baggage of duties— that a community demands from the woman expecting the foretold baby. The Immaculate Conception and the Oedipus myth are two good examples of such foretelling. Prior to conception, the “personality” of the child had been determined. This myth, when related to the ontological status of persons in Yorùbá metaphysics, corroborates the concepts of orí and àkúnlẹ̀yàn, the deterministic principles of personhood and destiny, and so for a thorough analysis on abortion from a Yorùbá feminist perspective questions around orí and àkúnlẹ̀yàn become quite pertinent. For example, at what point is orí chosen? Is it during conception or at the point when the revelation is given? Even if ascribing the category or attribute of personhood to such cases appears a bit far-fetched, what then do we call such metaphysical beings?


A very important point about the gendered nature of morality and perhaps why a concept such as gender-relative morality becomes a fundamental discourse on gendered morality, finds its grounding in our narrative from the altercation between Asípa and Ìyálóde, in which Asípa concludes that his daughter is “well taught,” indicating then that morality is something to be taught and in reciprocation, learnt.5 This act of moral instruction serves as the epistemological substructure upon which a gendered moral indoctrination is erected. Boys are taught to be men with all the virtues of courage, strength, and mental agility that come with what masculinity means; and, on the other hand, girls also had to go through a similar indoctrination on becoming women, with proper attention given to personal beauty which in turn produces them as feminine objects for men. Submission is taught to the woman as duty and as virtue but becomes a vice when she assumes a right over her body in considering when, where, how, with whom, and if, to submit her body. Thus constructed, gender come with its own moral assessment.

What is morally good is gendered male: Àkànní as male was able to regain his dignity, respect and could carry on living within his community as one acquitted and discharged from a crime. But that which is morally bad gendered female: Egbinadé brought shame, misery, misfortune upon herself and her family, and had to continue living within her community as one found guilty by the communal law and sentenced to a life of existential crisis. Àkànní’s regained dignity and respect as an ọmọlúwàbí renders that concept itself extremely suspicious. Could Egbinadé really have repaired her own ọmọlúwàbí the same way Àkànní did? Consider Alafe’s summation that “Among the Yorùbá people, the woman is expected to be a chaste virgin until after marriage. The rule is loose when it comes to men…a woman who has sex before marriage is a shame to her family” (2017, 781). This leaves us with the nagging worry: In the final analysis, are women really included in the category of people properly referred to as ọmọlúwàbí? If so, why couldn’t the same rule or propitiation enable Egbinadé repair her ọmọlúwàbí, say, by having her dignity restored through becoming Àkànní’s wife?


Egbinadé faces communal shame. She is encouraged to endure her shame and hope her baby would be a boy, at least that way her baby would be Àkànní’s heir. She embraces her shame, praying to birth her baby without much pain. The due date arrives, and after a long and harrowing labour, she hears the cry of her baby, finally. Her first concern is the baby’s sex. The midwife tells her that the baby is alive and that, that is more important. Egbinadé then hears her mother scream in horror. Her baby is a girl.


1 This narrative parallels the controversies around the Amina Lawal trial in a Sharia court in Katsina, Northern Nigeria between 2002 and 2003. After a lengthy trial that attracted international attention, Lawal was acquitted. She had been previously sentenced to death by stoning after she was found guilty of “zina,” having sex outside of marriage. The man whom she claimed fathered her child had denied her claim and was not prosecuted. See Sodiq (2017, 99), Tertsakian (2004), Rosenthal and Barry (2009, 205), and the article, “Amina Lawal’s Sentence Upheld”, South African History Online. www.sahistory. org.za. Another interesting angle is former South African president Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. While the woman, Khwezi, was dismissed and called a liar and labelled a ‘madwoman’ based on her sexual history, the sexual history of Zuma was not scrutinized. See Graham (2012).
2 See Wiredu, 1980 and Bewaji 2004.
3 See Godwin Sogolo’s (1993) analysis of moral autonomy.
4 For detailed analysis on issues regarding abortion, see amongst others Kebede (2010), Kaczor (2010), and Gordon, Abortion. www.iep.utm.edu/abortion/
5 In fact, this altercation provides a fertile theoretical commencement point for Yorùbá feminist ethics as a subset of African feminist philosophy. African feminist theorists have a ‘duty’ to either maintain the status quo or to unravel the ethical double standards (conceived here as gender-relative morality), which is an indication of female subordination. And there are several issues that make the field a robust one worth exploring: the nature of morality and its implication for the sexes; the critical difference between the nature of duty and that of rights; the idea of moral standards, especially in patriarchal communities; the ontological nature of the fetus in relations to abortion, the idea of a woman’s right over her body, etc.; ọmọlúwàbí as a gender moral category; and so on.

Works Cited

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Alaba, Olugboyega (2004), “Understanding Sexuality in the Yorùbá Culture,” Understanding Human Sexuality Seminar Series. Africa Regional Sexuality Resource Centre.
Alafe, A. F. (2017), “Age Grade and Rites of Passage,” in Toyin Falola and Akintunde Akinyemi (eds.) Culture and Customs of the Yorùbá (Austin, Texas: Pan-African University Press), 775785.
Bewaji, John Ayotunde Isola (2004), “Ethics and Morality in Yoruba Culture,” in Kwasi Wiredu (ed.) A Companion to African Philosophy Malden, MA: Blackwell Press), 396-403.
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Gordon, John-Steward, “Abortion,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. www. iep.utm.edu/abortion/
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Kaczor, Christopher (2010), The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life and the Question of Justice (New York and London: Routledge).
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MacKinnon, Catherine (1989), Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
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Shrage, Laurie (1994), Moral Dilemmas of Feminism: Prostitution, Adultery and Abortion (New York: Routledge)
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Sogolo, Godwin (1993), Foundations of African Philosophy: A Definitive Analysis of Concept Issues in African Thought (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press).
Sotunde, F.I. (2009), Yorùbá Proverbs and Philosophy (Abeokuta: Damsan). Tertsakian, Carina (2004), “Political Sharia”? Human Rights and Islamic Law
in Northern Nigeria. Human Rights Watch Vol. 16, No. 9.
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Press), 1-5-112.
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versity Press).

Babalọla Joseph Balogun
Department of Philosophy
Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria


The place of the world in the life of individual human being cannot be underestimated. This fact has culminated in the high esteem in which the concept of the world is held in the existentialist thinking. Using the Sartrean existentialist methodological approach, the paper critically examines the notion of the world (ayé) in the existentialist thinking of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The paper argues that although humans find themselves thrown into the world (ayé) amidst situations that are not of their own making, sometimes amidst untoward circumstances, the right mark of an authentic existence is ṣíṣe ayé which literally means “doing the world”, rather than mere gbígbé ayé, that is, living in the world. The paper concludes that the hallmark of authentic existence is to be found in the act of “doing the world” rather than just living in it.

Key wordsayé ṣίṣe, Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism, Authentic existence, Yorùbá ontology.
“(Man) exists in the world, and his possibilities relate to his world, and more than that, to the particular situation in which he already finds himself in the world.”
—John Macquarrie (1977, 62)


The concept of “the world” plays a central role in existentialist thinking. This may not be unconnected to the fact that it serves as a necessary condition for the possibility of human existence and circumstances of that existence. Neither human beings – the core subject matter of existentialist philosophy – nor any of their experiences, be it freedom, anguish, despair, anxiety, absurdity, facticity, choice and responsibility, even death, etc., all existential themes, is directly or indirectly meaningful outside the world. It is within the context of the world that the life of individual concrete human being makes sense or has meaning. An individual who never existed as a being-in-the-world, is no individual at all, or at best, not an individual to whom existential analysis of human condition is applicable. Also, it is in the world that human institutions, such as religions, marriage, politics, ideologies, education, cultures, parental guidance, among others things that inhibit individuals’ exercise of their full freedom, are possible.

Among the Yorùbá, the world, which literally translates to ayé,1 is a web of intricate whole, comprising both physical and non-physical forces, with neither exclusively meaningful without the other. This represents a significant difference from the classical existentialist conception of the world as fundamentally restricted to the concrete or the physical. The Yorùbá live essentially in a “theocentric world and as such, the world views, thoughts and ideas that define their attitudes and responses particularly to issues of human existence are saturated by transcendental metaphysical considerations” (Olajide 2011, 7). Of course, this position, which has been especially popular among earlier African scholars such as Bolaji Idowu (1962), J. S. Mbiti (1969), and M. A. Makinde (1988) has been heavily disputed by other scholars among which are Kwasi Wiredu (1980) and Tunde Bewaji (2006). However, it is instructive to point out that scholars in the latter group do not deny that Africans are religious; what they deny is the claim that African moral system is inextricable from African religion.

This paper enquires into the Yorùbá understanding and use of the concept of ayé in their existentialist thought-system. The paper starts with a linguistic-phenomenological account of the concept of ayé, with a bid to revealing two contextual significations within the linguistic culture/philosophy of the Yorùbá people in light of which their existential thought about the concept can be understood. A well-informed analysis of ayé, such as it is intended here, has the merit of demonstrating the place of humans in it, coupled with its role in their understanding of their human conditions and coping strategies. Subsequently, the paper argues that although humans find themselves thrown into the world (ayé) amidst situations that are not of their own making, sometimes amidst untoward circumstances, the right mark of an authentic existence is ṣíṣe ayé which literally means “doing the world”, rather than mere gbígbé ayé, that is, living in the world.

Ayé in Yorùbá Linguistic Convention

The concept of ayé could be approached from diverse theoretical standpoints, depending on the diverse ways in which it is used within the Yorùbá linguistic convention. Some of such theoretical standpoints can be identified, namely, cosmological, existentialist, metaphysical, and moral, among others. In this paper, ayé shall be used in both its cosmological and existential contexts. The reason for this is fairly clear. As the subsequent part of the section intends to show, the existence of the cosmological context of ayé is sufficient for the existential context of ayé to take place. In other world, without the former, the latter is not only impossible but also unthinkable. For analytic convenience as well as to avoid confusion as the paper proceeds, I shall prioritise, both chronologically and logically, the two contexts of ayé by referring to the cosmological context as ayé1 and existentialist context as ayé2.

ayé1 is an ecological confinement in which individuals are expected to fulfil their destinies. B. M. Ibitokun refers to this world (ayé1) as “the earth which is the measure of the present, and the locus of mortals and where you and I, in the form of existence, dramatise our distinctive destinies” (2014, 21–22). Here, ayé1 is conceived in terms of a stage, where individuals come to play their roles, and then revert into the dark back-stage. Balogun and Oladipupo have noted that primarily, ayé1 is used to mean the world in which existence takes place; that is, the objective or material world (Balogun and Oladipupo 2013). Existence here is to be understood in its most generic, non-technical, sense to incorporate both animate and inanimate objects as well as human and non-human beings. To this end, ayé1 can be likened to a vessel that wraps up all kinds of beings, human and/or otherwise. This vessel provides a large interactive meeting point for all things that physically are. In a specific relation to human beings, ayé1, also called ilé ayé, is contrasted with ọ̀run or àjùlé ọ̀run (heaven), from where humans are not only alleged to have come but to where they are believed to return after death. Hence, the Yoruba would say: ayé l’ọjà; ọ̀run n’ilé (the world is a marketplace; heaven is home).

ayéis broadly divisible intoterrestrial habitat(orίilẹ)̀ and aquatic habitat (inú omi). Terrestrial environment consists of all life forms in and upon the surface of the earth, including in the houses, in the bushes, forests, deserts, swamps, etc. Aquatic environment, on the other hand, shelters all forms of existence naturally found in the waters, i.e., in oceans (ὸkun), seas (ọ̀sà), rivers (odὸ tó ń ṣàn), pools (adágún odὸ), and other smaller bodies of water. These two components of the world are important to man’s survival not only in the sense in which they help to keep his biospheric environment balance and biologically conducive for living, but also in the sense in which they equip him with the necessary apparatus required for fulfilled existence.

It is important to note that out of all the constituents/occupants of ayé1, only ènὶyàn (human beings) are aware of their existence. Perhaps this supports the etymological derivation of ènὶyàn as ẹni-tί-a-yàn (i.e. “the chosen one”) (See Karenga 1999, 2009). Man’s element of “chosenness” makes him the favourite, the earthly king over other forms of creation, whereby he assumes the role of a “co-ordinator” of the world (ayé1). To describe man as “chosen”, according to Karenga, “carries with it a uniqueness, in that it presents the highest level of humanism in its inclusion of all humans as chosen,… as is the case for virtually all other traditions who self-define as chosen, elect, or recipients of endowed status” (Karenga 2009, 239). Such chosen status commits man to determining to what extent other things in the world are useful or not. This is what the existentialist means by saying that man is a value-giver. To man, other things in ayé1 are mere instruments, so that the relation between man and others is that of master and slave. It is in these others that human’s requirements for food, shelter, clothing, medicine and other general upkeeps are adequately met. When his appetite transcends the bound of what nature has readily available for him in stock, he devises a means of creating it out of the existing components of the universe, using the power of his nature-endowed intellect.

On the other hand is the ayé2. This is the world as represented in individual’s existence. ayé2 is the lived, concrete life of an individual. It is the totality of individual’s engagement with the physical world (ayé1), the sum total of the nothingness filled, between birth and death. Unlike ayé1, shared by all earthly occupants (as it were), ayé2 is in the realm of loneliness, a world cohabited by none, except the owner thereof, a road travelled all alone. It is the territory of subjectivity and crude individuality. It is also a realm of freedom, for as noted by Olajide, “subjectivity is undoubtedly rootless unless it is buried in human or individual freedom” (2011, 2). This human freedom makes the individual the best expert in his or her own affairs. This point is consistent with the Yorùbá belief that each individual is a unique being in the world, and that, having been sent to the world (ayé1) to fulfil a particular destiny, he or she alone has the mandate to deliver the message wrapped up in his/ her destiny. The entry into this realm is revealed through a self-awareness brought about by what Ogungbemi refers to as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is an attribute possessed only by human beings, culminating in the existentialist demarcation of the “being” of humans from those of brutes. Ogungbemi writes:

To the Yoruba, to be self-conscious is to be self-aware of oneself and to be self-aware of oneself is to have cognition and recognise who you are and what you are as an individual… Also being a self-conscious individual, man is able to raise the question of how he can find meaning and purpose in life. It is when an individual becomes aware of himself that he can actually know that self-awareness individuates, since individuation is a means to self-actualisation or self-authentication, it differentiates the quality of individuals. Even though individuals are self-conscious of their “beings”, they do not necessarily actualise their “beings” on the same level (2007, 119).

The description of the individual’s life as a realm of loneliness appears curious and inconsistent with the prevalent idea of the human person among some African scholars. According to this trend, an individual, within the African context, is only definable in relation to others, human and non-human alike. For Mbiti, “the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately.” Being a part of the whole, “he owes his existence to other people, including those of the past generations and his contemporaries” (1969, 106). This suggests no possibility of “my life” or “your life” (i.e. lonely life) within African ontological psychology of the individual person. Such may not be totally correct from a typical Yorùbá perspective, however. From the Yorùbá conceptual perspective, a person does not lose his or her individuality because of his or her membership in a group/society (Famakinwa 2010; Ogungbemi 2007). Certain aspects of life are rather understood individually (Balogun and Oladipupo 2013). For instance, a simple refusal to a sincere piece of advice, especially from an older member of the family, may incite a response such as: èmi ni mọ̀ l’áyé ara mi, “it’s my life.” This suggests the possibility of each individual living in his own world.

ayé2 is a temporal phenomenon. This element of temporality, betraying a mark of man’s finitude, is better understood in terms of period or phase. An expression of this temporality can be found in the Yorùbá saying, Ìgbà l’ayé (“the world is in phases/periods”). Time, phase, or period is of essence to ayéperhaps because of the finitude of existence. The reality of death makes the individual’s existence a matter of time. To emphasize the individuality factor attached to ayé2, the Yorùbá divide individual human life into three periods/ phases, corresponding to the linear division of the day into morning (ὶgbà àárọ)̀ , afternoon (ὶgbà ọ̀sán), and night (ὶgbà alẹ)́ . Each individual person has his or her own separate periods, which are a metaphor indicating his or her progression towards an essence he has conceived for himself, and ultimately, towards death. According to Sartre,

…man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self, nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be (1956, 291).

Ìgbà àárọ̀ (morning period/phase) represents roughly the period of the individual’s birth up to age thirty.2 This period offers the individual the opportunity to determine what shape his/her later phases would take. One’s parents, who are culturally expected to supervise the foundation for whatever one would later become in life, influence an important part of ὶgbà àárọ.̀ However, though parents have a role to play in the shaping of the individual’s budding life, the Yorùbá believe that the onus of becoming successful or otherwise later in life rests significantly with individual himself/herself; it is a choice that each individual will have to make early in life.

Ìgbà ọ̀sán (afternoon period/phase) and ὶgbà alẹ́ (night period/phase) are like superstructures built upon the foundation laid during ὶgbà àárọÌgbà ọ̀sán covers roughly the period between age brackets of thirty to sixty-five years. This period marks the productive age, and in most cases, the post-school/ apprenticeship period. It is the time for establishing families (this does not mean that some, especially women, do not establish families earlier than this), bearing and rearing children, and achieving intended goals for individual life. In general, a time for realizing one’s dream, ὶgbà ọ̀sán is characterized by attempts at realizing life’s numerous projects. Ìgbà alẹ́ is a time for reflection over life during ὶgbà àárọ̀ and ὶgbà ọ̀sá. It is the period when people atone for their errors or shortcomings, when experience dictates life and when the individual becomes a repository of traditional knowledge and wisdom. It is also the period when the individual prepares for death with all its associated beliefs. Although it comes at the end of the individual’s life, the Yorùbá believe that ὶgbà alẹ is the most important phase of human life, hence they pray K’álẹ́ san wá ju àárọ̀ lọ, “may our nighttime be more prosperous than our morning time.” Perhaps, this may not be unconnected to the belief that it is this period that one reaps the fruit of decisions taken and choices made in the earlier periods of life. This suffices to mean that the quality of one’s ὶgbà alẹ́ depends on the quality of the use to which one has put one’s freedom during ὶgbà àárọ̀ and ὶgbà ọ̀sán. The Yoruba will say, àgbà tí ò f’ àárọ̀ ṣiṣẹ́ yóò f’alẹ́ ṣíṣẹ̀ẹ́ – an elder who did not spend his early life working, will spend his old age in poverty.

One fundamental difference between the two contexts of ayé described above, relevant for our purpose in this paper, is that while ayé1 is passive and inert, ayé2 is active. Another way of putting this difference is to say that whereas the former is in the realm of facticity, the latter is in the realm of possibility. In existentialism, facticity is the condition to which an individual is born, which can neither be denied nor altered. It is the existential given over which man has no control. The world (ayé1) is, all the way, the same: a place where certain species of creation find themselves in. It is the world of which Sartre speaks that man finds himself thrown in without direction. The world (ayé1) is, forever, what it is. However, ayé2, conceived as possibilities brought about by conscious choices of the concrete individual that exists in the world (ayé1) are not as passive. To repeat John Macquarrie, “(Man) exists in the world [ayé1], and his possibilities relate to his world [ayé2], and more than that, to the particular situation in which he already finds himself in the world [ayé1]” (Macquarrie 1966, 62). Although man has no control over the situations in which he finds himself in the world (ayé1), he is completely responsible for what he makes out of the situations in which he already finds himself. Perhaps this is why Sartre reasons that human beings are beings in whom “existence precedes essence.” This means that “man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards” (Sartre 1956, 290). For Oke, what man is, is for each person what he or she makes of his or her life. This is what they mean by saying that existence is prior to essence, and existentially interpreted … this is why the Gods or any external forces are not to blame for the weal or woe of the world (2001, 128).

In spite of the foregoing difference between ayé1 and ayé2, it is instructive to note that the two worlds are not conceptually separable from one another. The subjective world is a subset in the objective world, and hence inexpungible from it for as long as the former lasts. This is because, as noted earlier, ayé1 predates each individual ayé2, and outlasts it. An individual is born into the world (ayé1), lives within it, and will die within it (Olajide 2011). It is in the world (ayé1) that each individual makes choices that determines the shape of his/her world (ayé2). The implication of this is that, though they are separate worlds, the activities in ayé2 impact on, to a large extent, ayé1; and this may be positively or negatively. In Sartre’s existentialism, the choices that an individual makes go far beyond his/her subjectivity (1956, 290-291). When we choose one course of action rather than another, we choose not only for ourselves, but for all humans, since our choice of the action implies that we would have willed that all humans choose the same course of action in a similar circumstance. Now, if the world (ayé1) is conceived as the Other, including other human beings, it means choosing for oneself is choosing for the world. The ultimate conclusion here is that, although ayé2 is existentially different from ayé1, the quality of the former rubs off the latter.

In what follows, I shall attempt a strictly existentialist reading into the concept of ayé within Yorùbá existential thought. I shall argue that the Sartrean concept of authentic existence is realised within the Yorùbá existentialist concept of ayé ṣίṣe.

ayé ṣίṣe as the Signpost of an Authentic Existence

The best way to start this section, it appears, is to clarify the existentialist concept of authentic existence, and then make a case for how it is realized in Yoruba existentialism through the concept of ayé ṣίṣe. Authentic existence is one based on the complete autonomy of the individual person as a choice-making animal. In Reisinger and Steiner’s opinion, to be “authentic is to be in touch with one’s inner self, knowing one’s self, having a sense of one’s own identity and then living in accord with one’s sense of one’s self” (Reisinger and Steiner 2006, 65). That is, an authentic life is lived in consonance with the dictate of the self, rather than imposed on the self from the outside. For Sartre, authenticity requires taking full responsibility for one’s life, choices and actions. This way, the concept of authenticity helps to sharpen the dichotomy between the self and others, that is, between the two worlds; and the ideal relationship that should hold between them.

To be authentic therefore must include an attitude of conscious rebellion or revolt to the influx of all external forces under whose weight an individual becomes lost in the crowd. Rebellion here is a positive, and, in fact, a desirable or necessary attribute of human existence because, besides its origin from the exercise of absolute freedom, it confirms the authenticity of the rebellious. Thus, to exist authentically is to lead a life devoid of impurities originating from such facticity as parents, culture, religion, morality, fashion, peer influence, education, politics, etc. By an act of constant bombardment, these forces invade our beings, leaving us existentially disoriented and alienated. Human beings can only be said to have authentically existed after they have subdued the force of these agents. Sartre writes:

… we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realization, that man can realize himself as truly human (1956, 310).

This point projects Sartre’s understanding of the subjectivity of each concrete individual, based on the alleged non-availability of objective values from which human can choose to guide the course of his/her existence. Lack of objective values demands that humans look nowhere for a direction on how to live. The best place to look, therefore, remains within himself. Olajide also argues, in consonance with Sartre, that man “must by an act of deliberate conscious choice reject the luxury and comfort of subsuming himself within the dictates of the faceless crowd or the herd, a preference which Jean Paul Sartre would later call bad faith typifying the inauthentic escapist existence of Kierkegaard” (2011, 3).

The question of how an authentic existence is realised within the Yorùbá concept of ayé ṣίṣe can be addressed at this point. The phrase, ṣ’ayé3 – literally, “to do the world”, is a rather complex expression in the Yorùbá language.

In its most basic usage, it means a tendency for personal survival in a world (ayé1) believed to be characterized by fierce competitions and a high possibility of misfortune. To this end, to do the world, is to, among other things, remain resilient in the face of the unhealthy possibilities that the world (ayé1) readily offers. An individual who does not ṣ’ayé does not have the requisite stamina to survive in the world (ayé1). Of such a person, the Yorùbá will say, ayé1 ń ṣe é – he’s being done by the world (he’s under the influence of the world). Although it is often given a metaphysical interpretation to mean that such individual is under some spiritual spell, the statement can be existentially interpreted to portray an individual who has no charge over his or her life.

Two things are discernible from the foregoing, therefore: it is either one does the world or one is being done by the world. On the one hand, it is deducible that the Yorùbá see the act of doing the world in a positive light. Thus, when one is said to ṣ’ayé, one is seen as possessing the requisite ingredients for a fulfilled or authentic existence, implying that one is fit for the business of quality existence. In contrast, to be done by ayé is to be in negative circumstances. The Yorùbá consider it a curse for one to be described as being done by ayé, for it not only portrays the individual so described as having lost touch with his/her original self, but it also shows him/her as a misfit of a sort.

Another way of looking at the phrase, ṣ’ayé—to do the world—is by understanding it to be a shortened form of a longer phrase. The phrase may be completed as ṣ’ayé ire – to do the world good. As noted by Karenga, “at the heart of Ifá moral anthropology is the ethical teaching that humans are chosen by the Creator to bring good into the world and that this special status and task are the fundamental mission and meaning of human life” (2009, 239–240). The call to the world good is a clarion call for an individual to live a morally worthy life, as it is through this that an ideal earthly condition is achievable for all. A popular Yorùbá folk song says: Ẹ ṣ’ayé e re kó dára; ẹni ayé kàn ẹ ṣé e re (“do the world good for it to be good; he whose turn it is to be in the world, do it good”). The rationale behind this call can be seen from its functional perspective: doing the world good establishes a sufficient ground for any concrete individual to be what or who he or she chooses to be without being constrained in the use of his or her freedom.

Some phenomenological clarification is required here. At a personal level, there are two kinds of ayé2: mine and others’. The former is ayé mi (my world/ my being/my life) and the latter, ayé aláyé (subjective others). (Notice that ayé aláyé is part of the world (ayé1) because it falls outside my subjectivity.) In contrast to ayé mi, ayé aláyé refers to self-consciousnesses other than mine, the presence of which makes me believe that other subjects exist beside me. Ayé aláyé comes in different guises. One of these can be found in the concept of ὶdίlé, the Yoruba word for family. Ìdίlé consists mainly of bàbá (father), ὶyá (mother), and alájọbί (siblings), which may include ẹ̀gbọ́n (older siblings) and àbúrὸ (younger siblings). Consisting mainly of people with whom one is acquainted early in life, these people are the closest to an individual in the social web/relation. The extended family structure prevalent among traditional Yorùbá complicates the web of influence, raising it beyond the immediate members of one’s nuclear family to others such as uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces and, if they are still alive, grandparents and even great-grand parents. All these members are my ẹbí—members of my family. Beside members of family, an individual also shares his/her social destiny together with others, including, ọkọ/aya (spouse), ọmọ (children), ọ̀rẹ́ (friends), ojúgbà (agegroup), ará àdúgbὸ (neighbours), àgbà (elders), and other social relational possibilities, which climax at ọmọ aráyé lápapọ—̀ humanity generally.

Now, the wills of these beings of other have a way of invading my being if my being lets them. The Yorùbá saying, ogun l’ayé/ὶjà l’ayé (“life is war/strife”), helps to explain the nature of this individual-others invasion. One may ask, if life is war/strife, against whom is the war/strife fought? An answer to this question may come in form of the non-physical forces that human beings have to contend with on their way to self-actualization. The Yorùbá ontology of the universe allows for the existence of non-physical or, if you like, spiritual, forces who are legitimate co-occupants of the world (ayé1) with human and other physical beings in the universe. These forces range from personal malevolent spirits such as witches (àjẹ)́ , and wizards (oṣó), etc. to potent non-personal forces, the so-called ajogun, such as death (ikú), diseases (àrừn), loss (òfò), paralysis (ẹ̀gbà), big trouble (ọ̀ràn) curses (èpè/ègún), imprisonment (ẹ̀wọ̀n) and affliction (èṣe) (Dasaolu and Oyelakin 2015, 25). Ogungbemi, for instance, may not agree that these forces constitute threats to the life of an individual. He refers to the belief in witchcraft as “the practice of fault-finding among relatives and neighbours”; and “the end result sometimes, if not always, is anxiety, fear, suspicion, hatred and bitterness” (2007, 105). This submission is debatable. If put within the existentialist context, however, the question can be answered in respect to human forces. These are not the physical persons who surround him/her in the world, but with the non-physical components of their beings which may include their ideas, moral systems, cultures, political inclinations, to mention but a few of them. It is perhaps of these forces that Olajide writes when he submits, rather plaintively, that “the prospect of an authentic self-discovery and self-actualisation by the individual particularly within the African socio-cultural context is rather dim and slim, and where it seemingly exists at all, it is severely threatened” (2008, 113). According to Karin Barber, “Yoruba cosmology presents a picture of a man, a solitary individual, picking his way (aided by his orί, destiny chosen by himself before coming to earth) between a variety of forces, some benign, some hostile, many ambivalent, seeking to placate them and only himself with them in an attempt to thwart his rivals and enemies in human society” (1981, 729). Ibitokun also has the same opinion about human struggle:

We ought to know that our nature remains the battlefield where factional, warring modules of id, culture, religion, economics, philosophy, governance, productions and distributions, etc., atavistically fight it out against one another (Ibitokun 2014, 24).
What Ibitokun refers to above as “warring modules”, Ogungbemi calls the “polarities of existence.” It may be tempting then to conclude, as Ogungbemi does, that “there is always, therefore, an observable tension in polarity between the individual and society” (2007, 146). Like the Hobbesian state of nature, existence is a war of one against all. Authentic existence demands that an individual be the chief dictator of his or her life. As declared by Oke, “man’s salvation lies in his own hands, in his personal action, and not in the action or inaction, decree or plea of an agency or force external to him, be such agency or force divine, oracular or secular” (2001, 132).
The foregoing may be approached from another perspective. Consider the Yorùbá saying, ọjà l’ayé (the world is a marketplace). This saying presupposes that other persons beside the individual are mere co-marketers with some that are close, and yet some others who are far. As a co-marketer, each individual comes to the market for different reasons. Some go to the market and get distracted by the noise of the marketplace (ariwo ọjà). These are people who allow other people’s opinion to rule their lives. Such people may be described as suffering from bad faith, to use Sartre’s concept for those who live in-authentically. The Yorùbá would say, ohun tί a bá wá s’ọ́ jà ló yẹ kί a gbá’ jú mọ́; kὶ ί ṣe ariwo ọjà (“it is what we go to market for that should be our primary focus; not the noise of the marketplace”).
Some may dismiss the foregoing as representing Western individualism, and hence, not representative of the African, especially Yorùbá, conception of the human personality. The objection to the above characterization of the individual may be rejected by some scholars of the African culture. This is because, for them, the individual is taken to be a culture-bound person who lacks his own conception of the good life, personal will, and who does not exist except in relation with others in his community. L. O. Bamikole, for instance, claims that man in the African context is a product of culture, and by this, he means that “man is a social being whose existence depends on others in the society. This is the origin of the assertion, ‘I am because we are’, which is the direct opposite of Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’” (2004, 102). Bamikole also argues, from a different perspective, that:

… an individual is an integral part of his culture. But what is culture is a product of individual brains, and it can be said then that an individual is also part of the determining factors of his actions. It is in this way that the individual agent is reconciled with culture. Thus, when an individual is conforming to the customs and norms of his culture, he is in essence obeying the laws he has legislated for himself (ibid, 104).

Being man-made, some elements of culture cannot be immune to human error. Moreover, certain aspects of culture have the possibility of being outdated. A particular element of a culture may lose its relevance due to modernity, civilization, or a mere change in vogue or taste. Beside these flaws, cultures are templates which only apply to the general aspects of people’s lives, but which do not give direction on how an actual human person should live his or her life in an authentic way. For instance, culture may prescribe marriage for adults, give direction on the marital responsibilities shared by spouses, etc. But it clearly leaves the individuals with the choice of whom to marry, or whether to marry at all. This is a personal decision that an individual will have to make. Culture therefore becomes utterly irrelevant in critical aspects of the individual’s life.

What is said about culture above is equally applicable to some other features of our world (ayé1). Consider technology, for instance. Technology, to be sure, is an inextricable part of contemporary life. It provides platforms for easy achievement of human projects which, without it, might either be impossible or quite laborious and expensive to achieve. This has made technology eat deep into contemporary consciousness that so many lives are blindly lost in it. However, technology, like culture, provides no standard for living through which historical human person could achieve authenticity. It should be noted that every technology is a way of life conceived by a particular inventor and imposed on other through its distribution and use. An inventor of a piece of technology has a dream. The users of such piece of technology help realize the dream.

It might help that we put the verb ṣe in a proper, existentialist perspective in our analysis of the concept of ayé ṣíṣe. As a Yorùbá verb, ṣe literally means “to do”. Among other significations, “to do” may mean “to act”, “to cause something (to happen)”, or “to perform something”, “to build” etc. It could be observed that these alternative meanings of the verb ṣe have a unifying commonality, namely, they all imply bringing about something which, hitherto, was not. For Sartre, the phrase, “to act,” for instance, is: “to modify the shape of the world; it is to arrange a means in view of an end; it is to produce an organised instrumental complex such that by a series of concatenations and connections the modification effected on one of the links, causes modifications throughout the whole series and finally produces an anticipated result” (1981, 268). Hence, “to do” is to aim primarily at what is not, as against what is. This implies making or causing a change in the way the world (ayé1) is. Notice that this change may come as either an addition to the world or subtraction from it. Either way, acting leaves the world either better or worse than it was prior to its occurrence, although it does not change the world from what it is.

Although an action is always followed by a modification (i.e., the coming into being of what was not) of the state of affairs in the world (ayé1), it is not the case that any time there is a modification in the state of affairs, an action has taken place. For sometimes, it is possible for a modification of the state of affairs not intended by the subject to occur. That is why, for Sartre, “the careless smoker who has through negligence caused the explosion of a powder magazine has not acted.” But on the contrary, “the worker who is charged with dynamiting a quarry and who obeys the given orders has acted when he has produced the expected explosion; he knew what he was doing, or if you prefer, he intentionally realised a conscious project” (ibid.). The key to the difference between these two occurrences is intention: whereas the former does not arise deliberately from the subject’s intention, the latter is a consciously intended project, whose consequence is foreseen before the action actually took place. This, however, should not be taken to mean that one must foresee all consequences of one’s action from the onset. For example,

The Emperor Constantine when he established himself at Benzatium, did not foresee that he would create at the centre of Greek culture and language, the appearance of which would ultimately provoke a schism in the Christian Church and which would contribute to weakening Roman Empire. Yet, he performed an act just in so far as he realised his project of creating new residence for emperors in the Orient. Equating the result with the intention is here sufficient for us to be able to speak of action (ibid, 269).

The point to note from the foregoing quote is that, “doing the world” involves taking a conscious action towards the realization of a no-thing; that is, causing to be that which was not. This is, according to Sartre, the essence of the being of man. Thus, “all intentional action must by definition be an attempt to change the world in some way, to bring about what the agent believes to be desirable, but not already the case” (ibid, 267). The desirable state of affairs comes to being through the existential creation of the subject, through conscious action.

A clearer perspective to the foregoing may be provided by considering the passive counterpart of ayé ṣíṣe, namely, ayé gbígbé (“living in the world [ayé1]”). The latter invokes the ideas of space and quantity. To live in the world is to occupy a specific region of the world at a time. This amounts to the number of spaces occupied in the world at a particular period defined by individual’s life from birth to death. Living in the world thus invokes the idea of passivity because it is the given: one just happens to find oneself thrown into the world, without having requested it. As Olajide puts it, man “suddenly just found himself in the world alone without his consent and he must confront his aloneness by naming his values” (2006, 241). Existentialists of Sartrean orientation refer to this as the contingency of human existence. According to Priest,

Existence is contingent. There might as easily have been nothing as something and, in particular, one’s own existence is inherently meaningless and contingent. Only particulars exist and things being what they are depends on the fragile contingencies of human language and faces the unsolved problem of induction. The effect of this Existentialist vision on those who experience it is a most profound sickness and anxiety (2001, 24).

A corollary of ayé gbígbé is ìwà l’áyé—being in the world, or being alive. Being alive is a necessary and sufficient condition for authentic existence, although it is possible to be in the world without doing the world. In other world, authentic existence is only possible within the context of aliveness. Although being alive makes authentic existence possible, it does not follow that all people in existence live authentically. This means that authentic existence is an addition to being alive. Hence, to live authentically, one has to live above the passivity of being alive. One has to add commitment to living to produce human essence. This means that being in the world does not guarantee one’s essence; what guarantee human essence is the totality of choices made in a life time.

To wrap up this argument, it is apt to point out, in a brief addendum, the role of responsibility in ayé-ṣίṣe. It has been argued, via Sartre’s ontology, that the being of humans is essentially free. As Sartre argues, being human is synonymous with being free. In other words, for him, “The only sense in which we are not free, it seems, is that we are not free not to be free” (ibid, 140). This freedom is the freedom to choose; and with it comes responsibility. To be responsible for what individuals do in Sartre’s sense “is to say that they do it, they could have refrained from doing it, and they are answerable to others for doing it” (ibid, 192). One may then see that responsibility is inextricably tied to the consequence of the choice made: without freedom to choose, there would be no responsibility. Sartre’s insistence that there is no situation in which man has no choice therefore implies that people are always responsible for their actions and inaction, and ultimately, for what they are. In recognition of this burden of responsibility, the Yorùbá would thoughtfully warn: a kὶ ί nί kί ọmọdé má d’ẹ́tẹ̀, tί ó bá lè dá inú igbó gbé (“no one forbids a child from becoming leprous, as long as he has he will to live a solitary life in the bush”).


In a convocation address at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Job charged the graduating class with the following:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by the dogma which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other people’s opinion drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Job’s admonition above appears persuasive, but it is the actual nature of human beings. Existence is all about making choices, but choices are not manufactured from ready-made products, the so-called “objective principles” that may aide the choosing individual to make the right choice. Such products are not readily available: the available ones, for examples, culture, religion, education – western or otherwise – family, parental upbringing, peer pressure, and the rest, what Ibitokun earlier refers to as “warring modules”, have all been shown to be unhelpful in any significant, self-fulfilling way.

What does an individual do, given the absence of objective standard or principle, to authentically exist? As I have argued above, the individual has no choice than to keep doing (or acting), which is a conscious act of choosing in a way that keeps the world (ayé2) creatively evolving from what it is to what it is not. There is no escaping from this; hence, each person is what s/ he makes out of his/herself. To refuse to act is itself an act. If all instances of acting attract responsibility, then a refusal to act is not an exception. The realisation of this by the individual confers a certain feeling of forlornness on him/her, a feeling that confirms the true nature of the business of existence as irredeemably personal. This is the personal world (ayé2) of the individuals with which s/he shares with none else. Whatever each individual does with this world is entirely left to him or her. However, it ultimately determines the quality of each person’s life – that is, whether such life be described as authentic or otherwise.4


1 This can also be translated as ilé-ayé. However, I shall stick to ayé in this essay for a reason that will become obvious in the course of the essay.
2 It should be stated here that in so dividing man’s life, the Yorùbá provide no strict principle that can help to demarcate one phase from another. Perhaps the metaphoric division of existence into three linear points of àárọ,̀ ọ̀sán, and alẹ,́ is found suitable because it helps to explain the progression of individual life: the beginning (or early time), middle, and the end. However, this conception may raise the question whether an average person completes this process or not. If everyone does, it will follow that a person that dies at the age of twenty dies at night, so does an infant, which will be absurd. So it could be claimed that based on the teaching of experience, people can die both in the morning, afternoon or night phase of their life. Our grouping of each phase as: one to thirty, thirty to sixty-five, and sixty-five to death is therefore arbitrary in the sense that it is not one that may be generally agreed to, but it still serves our purpose in this paper.
3 The phrase s’ayé is the verbal form of the noun, ayé ṣίṣe. Here it could be asked that when one uses the phrase, s’ayé – does the world – which of the two contexts of ayé is one referring to? Well, a response to this question has been anticipated above where I tried to show the relationship between ayé1 and ayé2. To repeat here, an individual who exists authentically by consciously choosing his/her action and hence being responsible for his life, is equally choosing and hence responsible for the whole of humanity. In other words, since his/her life is a subset of the world, then s/he is at the same time does both worlds. This point will be made clearer in the course of this section.
4 I am indebted to Prof. Wale Olajide of the Department of Philosophy, Ekiti State University, for a fruitful discussion of this work, and to Dr Oluwole Coker of the Department of English Literature, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, for helping to read the first draft of the manuscript, and for his sharp and constructive criticisms in form of suggestions of addition and subtraction, which greatly enrich the contents of this article.

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Oluwatoyin Vincent Adepoju
Comparative Cognitive Processes and Systems (Compcros)

Introduction: Why Write an Essay on an Essay?

One may compose an essay on another essay, and possibly an even longer one than the essay being studied, long as that one is, when one is confronted with one of those things one has to say something about after encountering them. “Ritual Archives”, the climatic conclusion of the account in The Toyin Falola Reader ( Austin: Pan African University, 2018), of the efforts of Africa and its Americas Diaspora to achieve political, economic, intellectual and cultural individuality, is a deeply intriguing, ideationally, structurally and stylistically powerful and inspiring work, rich with ideas and arresting verbal and visual images. His focus is Africa and its Diaspora, but his thought resonates with implications far beyond Africa, into contexts of struggle for plurality of vision outside and even within the West, the global dominance of whose central theoretical constructs inspires Falola’s essay.

“Ritual Archives”, oscillates between the analytical and the poetic, the ruminative and the architectonic, expressive styles pouring out a wealth of ideas, which, even though adequately integrated, are not always adequately elaborated on. This essay responds to the resonance of those ideas, further illuminating their intrinsic semantic values and demonstrating my perception of the intersections of the concerns they express with issues beyond the African referent of “Ritual Archives”. This response is organized in five parts, representing my understanding of the five major thematic strategies through which the central idea is laid out and expanded.

The first section, “Developing Classical African Expressions as Sources of Locally and Universally Valid Theory” explores Falola’s advocacy for an expanded cultivation of theory from Africa created and Africa inspired expressive forms. “Epistemic and Metaphysical Integrity in Ifá”, the second part, examines his argument for a re-centering of studies in classical African thought within the epistemic and metaphysical frames of those bodies of knowledge, using the Yoruba origin Ifá system of knowledge, spiritual development and divination as an example, an illustration I analyze through my own understanding of the cognitive and metaphysical framework of Ifá. The third unit, “Falola’s Image Theory and Praxis, Image as Archive, Image as Initiator”, demonstrates Falola’s dramatization of the cognitive possibilities of works of art as inspirers of theory, exemplified by a figurine of the Yoruba origin òrìṣà cosmology, the deity Esu. This is the most poetic and one of the most imaginatively, ideationally evocative and yet tantalizingly inadequately elaborated sections of “Ritual Archives”, evoking continuities between Yoruba philosophy, òrìṣà cosmology and various bodies of knowledge across art and image theory and history, without expanding on the ideas or building them into a structure adequately responsive to the promise of the ideas projected, a foundation I contribute to developing by elucidating my understanding of the significance of the ideas and their consonance with related conceptions and issues from Asian, Western and African cultures. I also demonstrate how this section may contribute to clarification of the nature of Yoruba philosophy understood as a body of ideas on the scope of human intelligibility and the relationship between that philosophy and òrìṣà cosmology, an expansive view of the cosmos developed in relation to the philosophy. This is a heuristic rather than an attempt at a definitive distinction and is derived from the relationship between my practical and theoretical investigation of Yoruba epistemology and Falola’s exploration, in “Ritual Archives”, of a particularly strategic aspect of òrìṣà cosmology represented by Esu. The distinction I advance between Yoruba philosophy and òrìṣà cosmology and the effort to map their interrelations is useful in categorizing and critically analyzing various postulates that constitute classical Yoruba thought. This mapping of convergence and divergence contributes to working out the continuum in Yoruba thought between a critical and experiential configuration and a belief system. The fourth section, “The Institutional Imperative”, discusses Falola’s careful working out of the institutional implications of the approach he advocates of developing locally and universally illuminating theory out of endogenous African cultural forms. The fifth part, “Imagistic Resonance”, presents Falola’s effort to make the Toyin Falola Reader into a ritual archive, illustrating his vision for African art as an inspirer of theory, by spacing powerful black and white pictures of forms of this art, mainly sculptural but also forms of clothing, largely Yoruba but also including examples from other African cultures, throughout the book.

Except for the set of images in the appendix, these artistic works are not identified, nor does the identification of those in the appendix go beyond naming them, exclusions perhaps motivated by the need to avoid expanding an already unusually big book of about 1,032 pages of central text. I reproduce and identify a number of these artistic forms and briefly elaborate on their aesthetic force and ideational power, clarifying the theoretical formations in which they are embedded and exploring the insights they could contribute to theory beyond their originating cultures. “Ritual Archives” is particularly important for me because it elucidates views strategic to my own cognitive explorations and way of life but which I have not been able to articulate with the ideational comprehensiveness and analytical penetration Falola brings to the subject of developing theory from endogenous African cultural expressions, exemplified by Ifá and art, two of my favorite subjects.

Part 1

Developing Classical African Expressions as Sources of Locally and Universally Valid Theory

In “Ritual Archives” Falola is agonizing over and passionately projecting a corrective to what he rightly describes as the paucity of strategies of scholarly investigation developed from classical African cosmologies and their correlative visual, verbal and performative arts and sciences. He examines how scholarly activism has enabled, among other Africa centered configurations of knowledge, the study of classical African history and historiography, African literature and African philosophy within the globally dominant Western academic system, as well as contribute to the study and creation of new kinds of these Africa focused creative structures. He then proceeds to argue in “Pluriversalism” and “Ritual Archives”, the concluding essays in the book, in a climatic section titled “Epistemologies and Ontologies”, that the struggle to adequately acknowledge the potency of Africa centered forms of knowledge must go beyond their study and even their creation to include the development of theories of local and universally illuminating power from these cognitive forms.

He argues for African art in general, and its cosmological images in particular, as capable of inspiring theories that could have value for both their originating cultures and for the world at large. He pursues this argument through a description of the problem in relation to its solution, discussing that solution through general elaboration and specific examples of what he describes as “ritual archives”, the cultural complexes, embracing and extending beyond conventionally accessible forms of being, created by engagement with the cosmos in its most expansive understanding by humanity, integrating the wonder and veneration represented by ritual and the critical thought enabling the order and continuity demonstrated by the organization of knowledge that constitutes an archive. Falola’s general summations of the concept of ritual archives is lyrically compelling

…the metaphorical and mystical sense of ‘archive’… that dimension of archive that is never (fully) collected but retains power and agency in invisible ways” ( 913). By ritual archives, I mean the conglomeration of words as well as texts, ideas, symbols, shrines, images, performances, and indeed objects that document as well as speak to those religious experiences and practices that allow us to understand the African world through various bodies of philosophies, literatures, languages, histories and much more.
By implication, ritual archives are huge, unbounded in scale and scope, storing tremendous amounts of data on both natural and supernatural agents, ancestors, gods, good and bad witches, life, death, festivals, and the interactions between the spiritual realms and earth-based human beings. To a large extent, ritual archives constitute and shape knowledge about the visible and invisible world (or what I refer to as the “non-world”), coupled with forces that breathe and are breathless, as well as secular and non-secular, with destinies, and within cities, kingships, medicine, environment, sciences and technologies. Above all, they contain shelves on sacrifices and shrines, names, places, incantations, invocations, and the entire cosmos of all the deities and their living subjects among human and nonhuman species (913).
…the epistemological and ideological significance of these archives [constitutes] a body of knowledge on a wide range of issues, including but not limited to cultural cognition, ideas and idea formation, semiotics, and education. Space does not permit the elaboration of the depth and breadth of the archives or the density of each genre with its own hydra-headed fragments and hundreds of individual constructions and presentations (919).
Falola illustrates these ritual archives through descriptions drawn from his native Yoruba cosmology. Central to his exemplifications are the multi-disciplinary scope, spanning the arts and mathematics, of Ifá and the figure of the deity Esu, who may be described as an embodiment of the contraries that define existence and their unificatory potential in relation to the dynamism of being, a dramatization of tension and aspiration for resolution evoked by the understanding of Esu as both trickster and privileged mediator of ase, a cosmic force that enables being and becoming, existence and change, individuality of being and connection between diverse forms of existence.

Theory as Cognitive Imperative

Why is Falola emphasizing the need to develop theories inspired by these classical African cultural forms? He may be seen as doing so because the ultimate bastion of the epistemic robustness of a tradition of enquiry, its vigor in terms of approaches to understanding the universe, is in its theories, the ideational lenses, the bodies of ideas on the nature of knowledge, and how it may be perceived, that underlie the cognitive activity of that tradition.

Theories are lenses through which phenomena are perceived. They are coherent ideational structures through which aspects of existence are interpreted. They are descriptions of the manner in which particular forms of being are understood, explanations of why they are seen that way as well as the logic of how these constituents of existence cohere to constitute an intelligible universe as perceived from the standpoint of a discipline, or, more broadly, from the vantage point of the epistemic universe constituted by a particular scholarly tradition embracing a totality of disciplines. Theories therefore represent the foundations of critical study of any phenomenon and of how phenomena cohere to constitute the cosmos.

This explanation of theory is based on the idea that all understanding is made possible by the relationships between the perceiving subject, particularly their cognitive faculties at play in particular perceptual contexts, the process of reaching understanding and the character of what is understood. This description adapts a triadic configuration derived from the Srividya and Trika schools of Indian thought, although the basic idea resonates across Western and Asian philosophies and what I know so far about African ideations. Theories demonstrate a process of understanding in terms of how they configure what is understood. This process demonstrates particular ideas about why the person undergoing the process of understanding is able to gain such understanding in the first place.

How do you know what you know? Why do you describe what you know the way you do? Why do you give the value you do to what you know and how many others assess the validity of your views? Those are the central questions of the philosophical discipline of epistemology and the ultimate orientation of theory. To adapt the summation of the article on theology in the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1971 on theology as a reflection on the rationale, structure and implications of religious faith, that the only alternative to theology is bad theology, the only alternative to theory is uncritical theory, an unacknowledged and unexamined body of assumptions shaping how people think.

Roots or Foundations, Roofs and Routes of Knowledge

Theories are the roots of scholarship. The roots are the theories, the trunk and branches the particular phenomena explored, although this image is to some degree simplistic, since the relationship between theory and what is theorized about could be quite intimate. The house of learning making up a scholarly tradition is constituted by many rooms or disciplines. These rooms, however, are built on a foundation representing conceptions of how knowledge may be developed and assessed, an epistemology, as well as a general view of the nature of the cosmos arising from this view of the nature of the intelligible, a cosmology. Each room, in turn, is covered by a ceiling representing the world as seen from the view of a particular discipline. All the rooms are in turn enclosed by a larger ceiling that projects how the universe may be perceived from the combination of the rooms that make up that house. The nature of the house is shaped by the character of its foundations, by the structure and contents of the rooms, the construction of their individual, smaller roofs and of the larger roof covering the entire house. The characteristics of these forms are fashioned through a combination of chance and choice enabled by the convergence of accidental history and deliberate historical structuring through informed decisions by various actors, circumstances not identical within various traditions of enquiry within the same cultures and between different cultures.

Thus, the Western esoteric tradition overlaps with but is different from the mainstream Western tradition of learning. Classical African and classical Western thought are different from each other and both differ from classical Asian thought, though all human forms of enquiry share significant convergences arising from the biological and environmental similarities that define the human race, as well as on account of historical intersections, routes of development between these pathways of enquiry. Roots or foundations, roofs and routes of knowledge, adapting Toyin Falola’s development of this motif in the Reader as summing up the complex unity of African experience, and which I elaborate on in “Roots, Routes and Roofs: Images of Dynamic Unity at the Convergence of Personal and Cosmic History”, correlative with Michel Foucault’s conception of the episteme ( 2002) and Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigms ( 1962), may be seen as paradigmatic or illustrative of the strategic significance of theory at the foundations and roofs of cognitive disciplines and the perceptions they enable of the world from within the complex of knowledge built within their compass. Theories are thus strategic within the overarching perspective on existence constituted by the superordinate scholarly tradition to which they belong, traditions created through shared epistemic and metaphysical conceptions developed through inter-referentiality, thinkers building on and referencing the work of other thinkers in developing a cognitive network within and between disciplines.

Combating Hegemonies of Theory

Why must the dominant lenses, the overriding perceptual structures, the roots and roofs of knowledge, almost the only ideational systems for studying phenomena across the world, be imported from only one part of the globe, the West-Europe and its North American diaspora? That is the question Falola, along with other activists over the decades in the struggle for epistemic decolonization, are asking. Political and economic decolonization from the West has been achieved up to a point. It is also vital to pursue to its full conclusion epistemic decolonization, developing independence of cognitive frames, of ways of knowing, cultivating self-government of the mind, building original ways of exploring the cosmos and of interpreting what is discovered.

Falola decries the epistemic marginalization of the cultural forms of classical African civilizations as these creative constructions may constitute strategies of scholarly knowledge, means of developing understanding within and beyond their own cultural contexts, rather than remaining only subjects of investigation, recipients of exploratory attention from other epistemic configurations rather than drivers of investigation from within their own epistemic nuclei.

He is particularly challenged by the need to develop theories of the nature of reality inspired by classical African cosmologies and their myriad projections because he holds that not only could such constructions yield new insights about the possibilities of existence, they would liberate Africans from living as one sided consumers of theories generated by the West.

He urges freedom from the orientation of Western scholarship towards treating as universal the locality of its knowledge grounded in study of what is native to its own environment, while other natalities, other nativistic contexts, remain localized. Thus an uncritical universalism is developed. In place of that, he advocates a critical universalism, a measured appreciation of the degree to which a body of knowledge, necessarily derived from an environment, can illuminate both that environment and other phenomena outside of its own context, a reflexive universalism he names “pluriversalism”, to suggest the creation of plural, multiple, co-existing centers of universal value.

“Ritual Archives” reminds me of Wole Soyinka’s great essay collection, Myth, Literature and the African World. Along with Falola’s “Pluriversalism” also in the Reader, “Ritual Archives” may be seen as taking forward the broad outlines of the project articulated by Soyinka, a project progressively actualized over the years before and since the first publications of the Soyinka essays and their collection in book form, by artists, and to some degree, scholars, inspired by classical African cultures. What Falola is doing in “Ritual Archives” is taking forward the urging of Soyinka for engagement with the spiritual and ideational power of classical African cultures as exemplified by his native Yoruba civilization.

Falola is advocating, not only for such an engagement, a possibility already richly realized across a broad spectrum of creative endeavor, but even more specifically, for the development of theories inspired by these cosmological systems and their expressive forms. Like Soyinka, his examples are drawn from the classical cosmology of the Yoruba civilization common to them both, their style of writing suggesting an identification with this cosmology and its creative expressions, an identification beyond the purely imaginative, evoking these inventive structures as constituting aspects of the core of the meaning of existence for these scholars. Whatever the quality of insight the theories developed in Western contexts deliver, should the modulations of perception enabled by their construction in distinctive conditions not be factored into evaluations of their significance and how they are adopted? Rather than depending on theory from one cultural source, should each cultural setting not create its own theories, and, keeping in mind the manner in which each social context shapes cognitive creation, use these theories in interpreting both its own context and contexts beyond itself, giving room for local influences in its own theory construction as well as commonalities within differences shared by human beings?

Falola is focusing, therefore, not so much on the study of African subjects, but on the development of ways of exploration, modes of cognition, styles of thought, from within Africa centered creations and the projection of these cognitive matrices beyond their originating contexts, thus enabling the interpretation of other phenomena beyond the cultural roots that give birth to these theories, thereby expanding the universe of ways of knowing and perhaps even of organizing and applying knowledge available to humanity. Thereby, African or African inspired cognitive spaces would also export ways of creating knowledge instead of being focused only on importation of such engines of mental creation into their own creative spaces. Other geographies of knowledge would then have the opportunity of importing African cognitive engines, theories significantly inspired by cognitive pathways native to Africans’ journeys of understanding. Thus a global cross-current of creative strategies would be developed in relation to Africa.

Such a picture goes beyond the current situation in which Africa’s cognitive network is shaped principally by ideas on how to develop knowledge imported from Western scholarship, even when the subject of study is African. As Falola elaborates on in the Reader, a lot of progress has been made, for example, in integrating African oral methods of recording history into the study of African history, a strategy Jan Vansina ( 1965), among other scholars, is notable in working out. Falola is arguing, not only for the expansion of this adoption of ways of knowing endogenous to Africa in the study of various disciplines, but for the application of such epistemic systems, adopted in their native forms or reworked as may be necessary, in the study of a range of phenomena within and beyond the African context, thus expanding the capacity of illumination enabled by African or African inspired systems of knowledge.

The essay, like his ideationally scintillating and passionately profound “Pluriversalism” represents for me the shock of encountering ideas I have long lived by but have not been able to express in the comprehensive summativeness that Falola dramatizes in these writings. “Ritual Archives” also powerfully foregrounds a situation beyond the geographical and social contexts which Falola concentrates on in the piece. Falola’s inspiration and focus is Africa, but his ideas are relevant beyond Africa, being vital for the very Western civilization whose scholarship has been the creators of the marginalization of African expressive forms he agonizes over, as well as for Asian, South American and Aboriginal Australian cultures, among other cognitive worlds marginalized in the epistemic and metaphysical frames through which knowledge is reached in the Western academy in its global dominance.

I get the impression that Falola’s challenge resonates most penetratingly in relation to what may be described as a particular epistemic frame privileged in Western culture and upheld in its global dominance, which may be descried as a cognitive mentality centered in privileging the ratiocinative and the logocentric, linear thought and its expression in language, rather than a related centralizing of the power of the senses, for example, as sources of authoritative knowledge. As has been pointed out, though, by Kwame Bediako in his essay on African theology in David Fordes’ edited The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, being the 1997, second edition, different from the third 2005 edition, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, where Bedaiko’s essay on African theology is replaced by that by Tinyiko Sam Maluleke, even the West has suffered a similar suppression in terms of its pre-Christian heritage, which enthusiasts are struggling to recover and revalidate. Western esotericism has itself been supplanted by what may be seen as an Enlightenment derived emphasis on the ratiocinative and secular, leaving the older culture marginalized in the marketplace of scholarly knowledge, marginalization evident wherever the West has planted its dominant cognitive culture, often through colonization.

The damage is less in places like India, on account of its rich culture of classical texts, among other factors, but to what degree do these classical cognitive systems shape the official culture of learning even in that subcontinent? In what way is the dominant academic culture of India different from that evident in New York and London? Is the emulation of the global metropolises represented by the West not the organizational norm and general aspiration world-wide? Falola advocates the increased recognition of the vitality of classical African religious systems, their ritual structures and the material forms associated with them as primary knowledge generators. He expounds forcefully on these ritual archives as evidence of ways of knowing vital to investigate in order to grasp the full scope of the cognitive possibilities humanity has been able to develop. He analyses compellingly the epistemic subjugation created by colonialism in Africa in the marginalization of African and particularly classical Nigerian religious cosmologies and their ritual archives. Why the emphasis on religion and its expressions, in a world dominated by the secular power of science, scientific culture being one of the greatest limitations of Africa? Falola states:

In varied ways, a countless number of sages, priests, devotees and practitioners created oral and visual libraries, which are linked to ritual complexes and secular palaces. Subsequently, cultural knowledge has extended from the deep past to our present day. It is through their knowledge that histories and traditions were constituted, while identities were formed, and philosophy as we know it emerged….In the process, the traditions in ritual archives provide some templates for the future; the contents of the archives become the philosophy, literature, and history; their interpretations become manifested in our present as part of our engagement with heritage and modernity (914).

While Falola might have been referring purely or primarily to Africa, he is also summing up what I understand as the current stage of scholarship on the roots of Western philosophy and science. Religion and its related ideas and practices constitute humanity’s oldest and most deeply rooted modes of making meaning of the cosmos and thus constitute the historical and ultimate ideational foundations of a good degree of human activity, particularly its cognitive creations.

Hence, the roots of Western philosophy are described as being in Greece and the first exploration in that tradition of the nature of being, the fact of existence, a central subject in philosophy, is described as carried out by the Greek thinker Parmenides in the context of a discussion with a goddess (Herman, 139-213).

The first great scientist in Western thought was Aristotle and all his investigations, spanning several disciplines across what later became known as the humanities, social sciences and sciences, are driving towards a goal he sets out in the Metaphysics, an effort to grasp the underlying principles of phenomena and thereby reach into the mind of the ultimate creative intelligence, as described by Jonathan Lear in Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, an aspiration also resonant in 20th-21st century scientist Stephen Hawking’s summation of the ultimate goal of physics in his A Brief History of Time.

This aspiration also reaches back to the dawn of modern science in the representative text of the 17th century Scientific Revolution, Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the concluding section of which caps his development of the theory of gravity and the laws of motion in which he worked out relationships between particular phenomena and universal principles. In that conclusion, Newton paints a majestic picture of the being of God in relation to his own enquiries into space and time across terrestrial and celestial scales, that divine image being a primary inspiration of his quest, having spent as much, if not even more time, on religious and occult investigations as on scientific study.

Recognizing the complex multidisciplinarity of his thought as embracing in mutual fecundation disciplines now understood as epistemologically distinctive, contemporary Newton scholarship elaborates on the links between his science and his Christian and occult explorations. Richard Westfall’s Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton and his superb distillation of his research in the 1992 Encyclopaedia Britannica are definitive examples of this scholarship, while Rob Illfe’s Newton: A Very Short Introduction, sums up the field up till the digitization of Newton’s work in the occult, quasi-scientific discipline of alchemy.

If Falola is summing up an idea already well known in the histories of Western philosophy and of science, what is its place in an essay on epistemic decolonization in African inspired thought? The struggle to validate the contemporary and future creative possibilities of classical African thought remains live. The varied richness at the base of Western thought is not well known, and thus, the rationality of modern Western thought can be juxtaposed against what is described as the problematic rationality of classical African thought. Scholars like Falola and Abiola Irele, for example, as in Irele’s “The African Scholar”, reframe African thought by pointing out the varied possibilities of its classical heritage, urging it be developed in terms of multiple but ultimately interrelated epistemic and disciplinary possibilities as the West has developed its own cognitive legacy. Falola sums up this vision:

Finally, the tail end of my assertions will suggest transformational strategies in according a critical place for ritual archives … to formulate evaluation mechanisms to authenticate indigenous knowledge and those who communicate them using data-driven and emic standards. At all levels of the educational system, indigenous ways of knowing, along with the knowledge and researchers of those accumulated knowledges must be fully blended with the Western academy (916).

How is this blending to be achieved? By grafting the hitherto marginalized classical African cognitions onto the dominant Western system? No. Falola is projecting something more radical, a rethinking of the classical African corpus from within its own epistemic and ontological foundations. The reflexive process he advocates would work out these systems’ distinctive understandings of the nature and process of perception and of the nature of being thus perceived as well as how these insights can be relevant to the present beyond their originating contexts, as insights valid for humanity as a whole. This task is described in a passage rich in ideational grace and power, compelling in its rhetorical rhythm, its force of commitment and its visionary concreteness:

Ritual archives tell us that we must review and question our externally derived approaches and the limitations of the methodologies we deploy. Western-derived disciplines (such as Religious Studies, History, and Philosophy as subjects of the Humanities) have carefully fragmented ritual archives, but it is time for all those disciplines to combine to provide an understanding of the centers of indigenous epistemologies, to unify their ontologies, and convert them to theories that will be treated as universal (916).

The visionary character of this passage emerges from its imaginative projection into the centres of possibility of cognitive systems whose nature is inadequately understood, like a glimpse of the majesty of the sky at night, the constellations ablaze as distant points of light within dark depths suggesting the compelling mystery of the largely unknown cosmos, that image a celestial analogue to Falola’s evocation of strategies of knowledge which the writer is certain would achieve greater robustness if their various units are creatively conjoined.

The rhetorical music of the lines comes from the writer’s movement from pointing out a challenge of scholarship, describing its origins and concluding in presenting a solution to the problem represented by the challenge. This ideational progression is made memorable by diction chosen for precision and semantic range, set like gemstones within carefully woven syntactic structures. The concreteness of the passage is demonstrated in its identification of the disciplinary contexts and procedures to be employed in achieving the goal the text advocates.

Part 2

Epistemic and Metaphysical Integrity in Ifá

What unusual ways of knowing, what unconventional epistemologies, may emerge from the reformulations Falola is suggesting? Could these lead to novel perceptions of the nature of phenomena, and of the place of such phenomena within the network constituting the totality of possibility? Could fresh conceptions of the potential of human understanding emerge through these reconstructions? Falola exemplifies this idea of disciplinary reconstruction by referencing the Yoruba origin Ifá system of knowledge, spiritual discipline and divination:

Experts work around each component, so that a scholar can study Ifá in various departments—Philosophy, Music, Drama, Literature, Linguistics, Religious Studies, Government, Sociology, Art, Anthropology, and History. In each of the disciplines, Ifá may become disconnected from the multilayered and intricately connected indigenous epistemology that produces it in favor of the concerns of the disciplines framed from other epistemologies external to the indigenous. In this regard, Ifá has been disembodied and fragmented. The questions posed can become “external” to its own organic make up, for example, whether Ifá is a philosophy or religion. Are incantations magical texts or creative literary texts? If Ifá verses are originally recited orally, what happens when they become printed texts? Do the printed texts, when read, become as effective as divination? (918).

These are very rich questions, foregrounding the question of the logic of disciplinary characterizations. These questions also project enquiry on the relationships between different kinds of textuality. An adequate response to such queries can only be arrived at or even approached through an examination of comparative modes of knowing and of understanding forms of existence, as these investigations are conducted in relation to Ifá. Such understanding may be developed in terms of the logic of the institutionalizing of knowledge developed within particular cultures. The dominance of one such culture, the West, may give the impression of the unassailable logic of the disciplinary characterizations cultivated in this culture. The characterization and organization of disciplines, however, as demonstrated by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things and Madness and Civilisation, among other texts, are now generally understood as shaped by circumstances incidental to the distinctive epistemic histories of various cultures. Along such lines, as understanding has grown of a plurality of approaches to critical knowledge, credence is given, even within Western scholarship, to contrastive ways of understanding the nature of philosophy, an accomodationist stance beautifully demonstrated by Edward Craig’s Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction.

Biodun Jeyifo, in “Abiola Irele: The Scholar as Critic”, describes Irele’s “In Praise of Alienation” as open to interpretation in terms of Gaston Bachelard’s and Louise Althusser’s conception of an “epistemological break”, an idea of dialectical progression in the social development of knowledge, in the “forward movement of culture and thought throughout history”: “By this reasoning, every culture and society has to break fundamentally with accustomed modes of thought, with received traditions of the organisation of knowledge for it to experience historical advance to a higher, more humane stage of development”.

This perspective suggests that the post-classical African experience may be better appreciated, not in terms purely of a disruption of the endogenous integrity of African cognitive systems, not only in terms of their fragmentation by the colonial encounter. It may be more fully grasped in terms of an expansion of possibility enabled by the colonial experience.

The epistemic violence of the colonial encounter may be seen as facilitating in classical African thought a greater openness as before to possibilities different from those of its native cultural range. Within this expansiveness, the student of Ifá, for example, may recognize its affinities with the Greek understanding of philo-sophia, the love of wisdom, but also recognize its differences from the ratiocinative character of the Aristotelian formulation of philosophy and the dialogical critiques of Plato as well as the dialogical Tantric tradition of India, while recognizing its affinity with the parabolic and mythic constructions of Platonic and Indian thought. These conjunctions and divergences could be appreciated in the context of exploring various forms of rationality, linear, non-linear and imaginative, among others significant in Ifá, examining how the varied expressions of these rationalities may enrich each other.

In this style of thinking, the emphasis is on the recognition of the fragmentation decried by Falola as better appreciated as a stage in a creative progression. This progression demonstrates the expansion of the creative potential of Ifá through encounter with various points of emphases within the scope of human rationality. The intrinsic possibilities of the endogenous character of Ifá may thus be expanded through this extrinsic exploration. In that sense, Falola’s goal of re-validating African ritual archives and fully blending them with the Western academy would be achieved, transforming the negativities of Western imperialism into an ultimately creative outcome for those outside the West and the West itself.

From an original endogenous unity to a fragmentation through insertion within an externally developed cognitive system, the endogenous may then move towards another self-generated integration by drawing the lessons gained from the external encounter within its own circle of knowledge, thus reaching the stage so described by Falola:

Texts, as in the case of ẹsẹ ifá chants, taken out of odù ifá, are entry points to the understanding of history, philosophy and literature, grounded in the epistemologies of cosmology and mythology. But the cosmology and mythology cannot operate without forms of rationality, as they need to explain other issues such as medicine, politics, and critical appreciation (918).

In those lines, Falola may be seen as working out a reintegration of Ifá. He can be understood as moving from the fragmentation of Ifá under the impact of Western forms of disciplinary organization to a reintegration using those same forms but in terms of an orientation derived from the epistemological implications of the cosmological core of Ifá, as this cosmological centre operates through mythic discourse.

What is the nature of this epistemology? What kind of rationality/ies does it demonstrate? How may these forms of rationality impact on the holistic exploration of Ifá as well as on the study of its various component disciplines an d of those disciplines to which Ifá might be seen as having a more distant relationship? What may be seen as the ultimate possibilities of these explorations?

A cosmology may be perceived as implying a relationship between the person constructing that cosmology and the cosmos the cosmology interprets. This relationship is constructed through the structure of ideas represented by that cosmology. The cosmology is thus an interface, an interpretive matrix, between the human being and the world beyond themselves which they try to comprehend through this structure of ideas.

This understanding of the relationship between cosmology and epistemology is based on the idea that all understanding is made possible by the connections between the perceiving subject, represented by their cognitive faculties, the process of reaching understanding and the character of what is understood. This description adapts a triadic configuration derived from the Srividya and Trika schools of Indian thought, although the basic idea resonates across Western and Asian philosophies and what I know so far about African ideations.

What may be perceived as the central ideas on the nature of the human being in Ifá, on the character of the cosmos and the relationship between these two units in the scale of the larger framework represented by the cosmos and one of its units, the human being? The conception of the Babaláwo, which may be translated as “adept in the esoteric knowledge of Ifá”, a crowning grade of development in traditional Ifá practice, could act as a guide in answering these questions.

The following elaboration on the concept of the Babaláwo comes from my response to a 30th October 2017 Facebook post by humanities scholar Adeleke Adeeko. His description of Ifá in our exchange emphasizes its humanistic thrust and multidisciplinary integration, while my response insists on the need to recognize the grounding of that multidisciplinary dynamic in particular cosmological conceptions. Countering my interpretation of the concept of the Babaláwo, Adeeko responds that:

It is more profitable in scholarly contexts, I believe, to take “awo” to mean laborious, high learning and knowing (ìmò)̣ , so valuable and specialized that it requires years of commitment and elaborate certification. The esoteric part of Ifá … does not appeal to me so much as its accessible poetry of knowledge coding, its grounds of knowing and disclosure, its centering fecund interpretation, its privileging of the client. I am completely convinced that láìsí ènìyàn, imalè ̣ kò sí (without humanity, divinity is not).

I engage with Adeeko’s response using his analytical categories as a springboard:

Babalawo” may be described as “adept in the esoteric knowledge of Ifá,” integrating a metaphorical interpretation of male elderhood in the word “baba” and a metaphysical principle in the concept “awo”. The Yoruba word “baba” operates at a scale ranging from the literal to the metaphorical. In literal terms, it refers to fatherhood. Metaphorically, it signifies a male eld er. At a further metaphoric level, it may also be adapted to refer to the conjunction of the venerable and the authoritativethat comes with mastery of a discipline. Thus, I render it as “adept” in translating the term “babalawo. ‘” “Awo” refers to esoteric knowledge, spiritual mystery, also adapted in colloquial contexts to mean something secret.

The term awo also occurs in contexts that do not require “laborious, high learning and knowing, so valuable and specialized that it requires years of commitment and elaborate certification” an impressive summation of the institutional framing of the Babalawo concept as a crowning grade of development in traditional Ifá practice, but which might not be as valid for other forms of spirituality and magic that do not necessarily demonstrate the pedagogic rigor associated with Ifá. Thus, awo may refer to any form of esoteric spiritual knowledge and activity, but not necessarily in relation to Ifá. Within the term Babalawo, however, awo becomes specific to Ifá. Awo Fa’lokun Fatunmbi in “Obatala: Ifá and the Chief of the Spirit of the White Cloth”, describes awo as:

…a body of wisdom…which attempts to preserve the rituals that create direct communication with forces in Nature. [It] refers to the hidden principles that explain the Mystery of Creation and Evolution. Awo is the esoteric understanding of the invisible forces that sustain dynamics and form within Nature. The essence of these forces are not considered secret because they are devious, they are secret because they remain elusive, awesome in their power to transform and not readily apparent. As such they can only be grasped through direct interaction and participation. Anything which can be known by the intellect alone ceases to be awo.

Aina Olomo in a post of 3rd August 2010 on the Yoruba Affairs Google group, under the thread “Esoteric Knowledge and Power in the Orisa Tradition”, also defines awo as :

the inexplicable power of transformation. It is stored in the mystical dimension of Awo; it is a realm of phenomena that is unavailable for total absorption by the human mind. Its power carries out actions initiated by the cosmic consciousness of the Infinite Mystery or Source and then manifests that power in the three dimensional world of humanity. The realm of Awo is a parallel world without boundaries, constantly regenerating, expanding its breadth and depth; this is the dimension of consciousness where the sum total of humanity’s inspirations and experiences are alive, existing forever in the minutes of today, never solely attentive or restricted to yesterday or tomorrow. This power brings everything in the Universe into existence. Its apparatus is dialectical, creating harmonydysfunction, joy – sadness, awareness unconsciousness, and matter – thought, light – darkness, as they co-exist in the consciousness of Source simultaneously. Awo is the space in the universe where the illusive answer to how dwells. Awo is inexhaustible because of its closeness to the ultimate and Supreme Being, the Infinite Mystery.

The concept of awo may be clarified with reference to the Christian concept of mystery and philosopher of religion Rudolph Otto’s idea of the numinous developed in his The Idea of the Holy. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1966) defines the numinous as “an invisible but majestic presence that inspires both dread and fascination and constitutes the non-rational element in vital religion”.

Mystery in the Christian context does not refer simply to what the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner describes as “the unfortunate remainder of what is not yet known” in “Living into Mystery: Karl Rahner’s Reflections on his 75th Birthday”. In Rahner’s words in the same interview:

The true system of thought [in theology] really is the knowledge that humanity is finally directed precisely not toward what it can control in knowledge but toward the absolute mystery as such; that mystery is not just an unfortunate remainder of what is not yet known but rather the blessed goal of knowledge which comes to itself when it is with the incomprehensible One… With other words, then, the system [of my theology] is the system of what cannot be systematized.

Rahner thus suggests a zone of being that transcends human efforts to encapsulate it in knowledge and yet is accessible to the human person. The image of Kaidara as described by Ahmadou Hampate Ba in Kaidara: A Fulani Cosmological Epic from Mali, evokes such conceptions of relationship between presence and distance in the context of the scope and limits of the knowable in the figure of a decrepit and dirty old man who is yet a beam of light from the hearth of Gueno, creator of the universe, a disguise created to test, among people he encounters in his peregrinations around the world, their readiness to receive the knowledge he embodies of the ultimate possibilities of human understanding.

The awo in Babalawo may be seen in a similar context as evoking the sense of an inscrutable mystery, potent but opaque, mysterious but dynamic, compelling in its distance from conventional human grasp but active in various situations. On Ifá as a literary and epistemic system, beautifully summed up by Adeeko in terms of “its accessible poetry of knowledge coding, its grounds of knowing and disclosure, its centering fecund interpretation, its privileging of the client”, it is Ifá’s grounding in an esoteric core that validates all those configurations. What are the grounds of knowing and disclosure in Ifá? Is it limited to interpreting its symbolic forms, the odù ifá, purely in terms of readily accessible information? No. The odù ifá are described, not purely as information matrices, as collections of literature, but as sentient entities in their own right, abstract identities expressed in the form of humanly created symbols, conceptions demonstrated by Wande Abimbola in An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus and Ifá Divination Poetry, in which he references oral traditions depicting the odù ifá descending to earth from ọ̀run, the world of metaphysical origins where Olodumare, the creator of the cosmos is centered.
In a personal communication by Babalawo Joseph Ohomina, Ohomina describes the odù ifá as “spirits whose origin we do not know and of whose significance we understand only a small fraction and yet who represent the spiritual names of all possibilities of existence”, a summation I discuss in “Cosmological Permutations : Joseph Ohomina’s Ifá Philosophy and the Quest for the Unity of Being”. Is Ifá literature, its primary means of organization and expression, limited to its evident structural and thematic values? No. That literature is mobilized in divination as a means of communicating the voice of an oracle, an intelligence described as divine, requiring supra-intellectual methods to access.

Self and Cosmos in Ifá

How does Ifá privilege the client? Simply by consulting the oracle on behalf of an enquirer? No. The consultation is understood to operate at the nexus of interaction between the primordial and yet historically grounded wisdom represented by the odù ifá and the essential identity of the client, their orí, their metaphysical head and ultimate centre of direction, the embodiment of their ultimate potential, a core of being whose cooperation or alignment with a purpose is vital for success, hence it is stated that no òrìṣà or deity can bless one without the consent of one’s orí, the only deity who can follow its devotee on any journey, even the ultimate journey of death, since the existence of the orí is understood as preceding terrestrial birth and outliving the death of the body. Thus, while Ifá can be discussed in secular terms, it is not a secular but a spiritual discipline, rooted in conceptions in Yoruba metaphysics and epistemology that unify Yoruba philosophy and spirituality.

These conceptions provide fruitful ground for explorations at the intersection of hermeneutics, theory of interpretation, epistemology, theory of knowledge and metaphysics, theory of being, in relation to such strategic ideas in Yoruba thought as the relationship between àṣẹ, a form of cosmic force, and language as an expression of this force, among other conceptions, as I describe in “Orality and the Metaphysics of Language in Yoruba Thought”, building on Rowland Abiodun’s discussion, in Yoruba Art and Language: Seeking the African in African Art, of ọ̀rọ̀, discourse in Yoruba philosophy, in relation to àṣẹ. An adequate excavation of the ideational possibilities of Ifá is possible only by careful attention to its philosophical and spiritual grounding, relating these to any tasks the student of Ifá wishes, transposing them in secular terms or further developing their understanding as engagements with unconventional forms of sentience and power. Western and Asian hermeneutics have taken this route and recurrently draw more possibilities from the foundational wells located in their sacred text and their associated practices. One may wish to study Ifá purely in secular terms, but it instructive to note that in doing so, one is bracketing out one possibility out of a much larger matrix.

What may be the implications for scholarship, for critical relationship with ideas, for the view of the metaphysical core of Ifá represented by the concept of awo? What may be the significance of that idea for the study and use of ideas from Ifá, for an adaptation of them to strategies of thinking and insight, of reflection and perception? Must one identify with the awo concept to be able to use Ifá ideas in full recognition of their metaphysical ground as Falola advocates, as different from a sundering of them from their cosmological roots, a fragmentation Falola decries? I would think that what is imperative is exploration into the cosmological framework of Ifá, into its epistemic strategies and metaphysical roots, explorations which might not lead to the same conclusions by different people, as suggested, for example, by comments in the discussion on Ifá quoted by Falola in “Ritual Archives”, in which Babatunde Emmanuel poses a question deriving from his interest in transposing Ifá into science, perhaps under the inspiration of its mathematical structure and its aspirations to comprehensive mapping of phenomena:

How does a religious matrix based on revelation and symbolic classification transform into an empirically validatable and refutable source of knowledge that will not depend on dogma and persecution to justify and corroborate its views as valid? Since Mathematics is the language of science because it is logic in symbols, in order to make anything scientific, it must be mathematically replicatable, refutable, and verifiable. When will Yoruba Renaissance occur that will move claims of Ifá from the realm of belief to the realm of fact? (918 )

Archeologist-cum-Historian Akin Ogundiran gave an immediate answer:

Ifá is not based on revelation. It is based on learning, and its processes and outcomes can be replicated. My own field research has proven this in multiple places, over several years. Moreover, the intellectual communities from which Ifá developed are not based on dogma. … It is based on openness of thought, critique, and experimentation.

Ifá is a corpus of different categories of knowledge, not just religion. It is also a body of knowledge on history, philosophy, etc… Computer scientists, such as Dr. Tunde Adegbola, are doing fascinating work that shows that “the scientific basis of Ifá is the same with the subject of simulation in Operations Research” (Adegbola).

What is important in the methodology that Dr. Adegbola is using is that he is also doing ethnographic field research in order to systematically collect the data needed for his systems analysis work. As far back as the 1990s, Oba Pichardo and his Lukumi collaborators in Miami, Florida, were able to write computer codes that allowed them to conduct computer-based Ifá divination. It was a preliminary work when I saw it around 2007. It is possible that they have expanded the work since then.
A number of scholars from different fields have started to answer these questions. What their studies are telling us is that one cannot stand outside a tradition or a system of knowledge to make declarations about that knowledge. …Dr. Wariboko stated, Ifá offers…rich fodder for theorizing a diverse range of ontological issues. These areas will continue to be relevant. However, the area of systems and mathematical analysis offer a very fascinating path of inquiry. This effort should involve the collaboration of traditional academics, scientists, and practitioners” (919).

Olu Longe’s pioneering “Ifá Divination and Computer Science”, Femi Alamu et al’s “A Comparative Study of Ifá Divination and Computer Science”, my “Rethinking Ifá : From Classical to Post-Classical Geometries 1 : The Ifá Vectors of Moyo Okediji” take forward ideas of the scientific significance and potential of Ifá and the debate I edited “Ifá/Afa/Efa/ Fa, Science and Comparative Scholarship” examines the same subject in the context of the epistemic procedures through which the various interlocking dimensions of Ifá may best be explored. I acknowledge the full scope of Ifá as a spiritual discipline embracing a range of aspects that may be significantly deployed without reference to the spiritual centre of the system. Such fragmentation, as Falola might put it, is vital for enabling access to and use of the protean character of this broad ranging body of knowledge, a task that would be hampered if some of its more abstract philosophical and spiritual ideas cannot be bracketed out while exploring its convergence with secular thought and creativity in different disciplines.

Part 3

Images as Epistemic Catalysts

While I have been working with similar ideas in my individual bodies of work, Falola’s perspective is that of a bird soaring above the creative landscape, its keen eye aggregating possibilities similar to those which I have engaged with in terms of distinctive expressions, his synthesizing intelligence transmuting the particular to the general and unfolding the general into the particular, unfurling a tapestry of numerous, interlinked possibilities, integrating potential that is then unfurled, breaking open an ideational consolidation to reveal a schematically organized universe of possibilities, a grain of sand, a tightly woven condensation of myriads, split open to reveal the cosmos, “In the heart of a minute particle of dust/is present a vast scroll/as large as the three thousand fold world/and on this scroll is recorded all things without exceptions/in this world system of three-thousand fold multi-thousand worlds”, invoking an image from the Buddhist Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Gomez, 1995).

An exploration of the significance of developing locally and universally illuminating theory from endogenous African expressive forms as advocated by Toyin Falola in his essay “Ritual Archives”. This section of the essay, along with parts 4 and 5, are still under construction.

Falola’s Image Theory and Praxis: Image as Archive, Image as Initiator

Assuming one wishes to take further an examination of Ifá or any other ritual archive on its own terms, engaging with its own epistemic grounds and their varied expressions. How may one go about it? Falola dramatizes a form of image contemplation suggesting how one may immerse oneself in the various dimensions of meaning of a ritual archive. He does this through a rich exploration of possibilities of response to a figure of the Yoruba Orisa cosmology deity, Eshu, thereby developing inspiring passages on the power of images, with particular reference to African ritual archives, building a conceptually rich, analytically incisive and deeply evocative description of the convergence of image making and sacred aspiration in classical African culture, and incidentally, across cultures, within and beyond Africa.
He thereby brings alive this classical African culture as a continuity into the present from the past in the lives of those who identify with it, in the process demonstrating how an image from Yoruba culture through which he exemplifies his image theory can provoke an engagement with the web created by the intersection of Yoruba epistemology and metaphysics. Toyin Falola’s image theory and praxis thereby suggests how styles of engagement with the Orisa tradition, Ifá and classical African spiritual systems may be reworked. To the best of my knowledge, classical African spiritual systems are generally understood as practiced through concrete structures involving natural forms and human made objects. This is exemplified by Phyllis Galembo’s ( 1998) remarkable pictures of shrines and their priests and priestesses in Benin-City by articles like Margaret Thompson and Henry John Drewal’s “An Ifá Diviner’s Shrine in Ijebuland” and particularly powerfully, I expect, by Robert Farris Thompson’s , Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas.

Wole Soyinka at the Intersection of Physical and Contemplative Ritual

A striking evocation of the dynamics of materially centered engagement with sacred practices in such contexts is provided by an arresting passage in Season of Anomy, a novel by Wole Soyinka, a master of ritual, classical African and self-created, an aspect of his work that lends itself to adaptation to actual ritual practice, as I point out in “Wole Soyinka’s Art as a Psychological, Spiritual and Philosophical Resource” and “Contemplation as a Means of Creativity and Empowerment in the Work of Wole Soyinka : Void Meditation : Theory and Method”:

In the hours before dawn the song-leaders from the dead Custodian’s household followed Ahime through the sleeping town, swift dark-brushing motions of maroon loin-cloths. All paths must be trodden in the predawn hours, heads bent to the ground, acknowledging no one and seeing none. A low moan rose, thrilled in the slumbersome air, the earth gave answer in trembling accents, a lead voice prompted the sleep-washed dirge of earth and a sudden motion of feet would thud in velvety unison. The dark figures swayed backwards, leant into the yielding night-membrane, uncoiled in a python lunge upwelling into a dark toned monody. Then they leapt forward again along the path, sending soft vibrations along the path. Blood, oil, colanuts, slain pigeons at every spot where a founder had fallen, sacrificed or finally rested, at every meaning left behind by the first progenitors. The departed were appeased, venerated, welcomed, touched and brought among the living. The new deceased was on his way (12).

In Myth, Literature and the African World, a related ritual is dramatized in similar poetic terms by Soyinka:

In cult funerals, the circle of initiate mourners, an ageless, swaying grove of dark pines, raises a chant around a mortar of fire, and words are taken back to their roots, to their original poetic sources when fusion was total and the movement of words was the very passage of music and the dance of images (147).

The senses do not at such moments interpret myth in their particular concretions; we are left only with the emotional and spiritual values, the essential experience of cosmic reality. (148).

Soyinka succeeds wonderfully in developing rituals which can be used in a purely contemplative or a dramatized form, as in the ritual at the centre of Death and the King’s Horseman, which may be approached as a powerful African version of the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead, described as a means of guiding people leaving the world in death to crossing the borders between earthly existence and the mysterious zones into which they are moving in this fundamental transition.

It is also comparative with the Egyptian Book of the Dead, known to me in an inspiring version titled The Book of Coming Forth by Day, death and its management being central to ancient Egyptian spirituality and architecture. It is also correlative with the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on death and dying in her book of that title, as a process that needs to be theorized and mapped and the participants in the process guided through it. Tibetan Buddhism adapts this complex of ideas in the Gcod hod ritual, in which the aspirant imagines themselves in a state similar to that of death, progressively divesting themselves of the material constituents that define themselves, in order to identify with the fecund emptiness that enables existence, its voidness an expression of its transcendence of all human perceptual capacity (Orifino, 2000).

The contemplative method and thematic orientation of the Chod ritual is also correlative with another contemplation of emptiness from a different context, Soyinka’s meditation on the nothingness before existence in his The Credo of Being and Nothingness. That Soyinka meditation is itself resonant with his reflections on emptiness in his prison memoir The Man Died, in terms of the infinite possibilities evoked by the inspiring emptiness of a blank sheet of paper, a luxury stirring almost metaphysical appreciation from a profound and prolific writer starved of writing material while in jail, an enforced seclusion often reinforced by his being isolated from human company in solitary confinement.

Howard Philips Lovecraft and John Milton

I wonder to what degree this aspect of Soyinka’s work is appreciated and to what degree it is used in actual contemplative or dramatic ritual practice. Adaptations of imaginative literature to serious spiritual and philosophical activity emerge in various contexts, framed by the fact that much religious and philosophical expression is imaginative.

A particularly striking example of such transitions is the religious adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulhu mythos (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories) inspired by the complex of qualities that animate his unprecedentedly unique oeuvre in which the imaginative exuberance of his characterizations and plots is brought alive by uniquely magnificent language. His universe of wonderfully characterized otherworldly entities within a gradually unfolding but never fully illuminated cosmological matrix thus contributing to its enthralling mystery, dramatizes a compelling evocation of the numinous, the tension between a compelling otherness and its distancing alienness, thus evoking the paradoxical conjunction between the human being’s breadth of cognitive aspiration and the scope of human perceptual possibility.

These qualities make his work fertile for counter cultural forms of mysticism, the most uncompromising of this being a form of demonic mysticism, as in the occult groups Dragon Rouge, as the group states on its website, and other enthusiasts inspired by Lovecraft’s unique actualization of the impulse represented by the older example of John Milton’s majestic evocations of the landscape, denizens and psychology of Hell in Paradise Lost. Milton’s projection of the glorification of the infernal, however, may be better appreciated through contrast with the Hell of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the most impactful evocation of Hell in Western literature, but purely a place of torment and regret within marvelously imagined horrors undergone by the dammed.

The Miltonic Hell and the dreadful cosmos of Lovecraft’s corrosively powerful entities, however, constitute some of the world’s greatest evocations of the cosmic awe that inspires and is projected by religious consciousness. Milton’s and Lovecraft’s creations belong to a guild of creations of masterpieces of the terrible which include Melkor, Saurun and the landscape of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarilon by Milton’s 20th century successor J.R.R. Tolkien as well as the Dark Lord, his acolytes and the terrible worlds they inhabit within the conventional human world, the work of Tolkien’s successor J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books. These later works resonate with Lovecraft’s incomparable landscapes of metaphysical and celestial otherness intersecting with the human mind, constituting a matrix evocative of Immanuel Kant’s juxtaposition, in his Critique of Practical Reason, of human finitude with celestial immensity in space and time in the context of the human aspiration to infinity.

Toyin Falola’s Exploration of the Contemplative Potential of Classical African Sacred Art

Soyinka demonstrates the possibility of developing novel, individualistic contemplative and physical ritual from classical African cultures. He does this through his wonderful dramatizations of Yoruba spirituality and his own development of contemplative and ritual strategies distilling both this native orientation and his immersion in a global variety of cultures, from Christianity to Tibetan Buddhism to Hinduism, thus contributing to the growing globalization of Yoruba and African spiritualties, taking them beyond their traditional geographical contexts and their conventional modes of practice.
Toyin Falola, inspired by the general matrix represented by the continuity between classical and post-classical Yoruba culture, takes this initiative further through a foundational statement of an image theory derived from African art and dramatizes how this theory may be engaged with through contemplation of African sacred forms. He argues for an approach to African religious images as archives of cognitive possibility, as encodements of ideational and cognitive expansion, as stimulators of theory, ideational networks illuminating the nature of the universe or aspects of it, bodies of ideas capable of flight from within their originating cultural contexts to illuminate other social and cognitive spaces, expansive possibilities of knowing that may be unlocked through the contemplative gaze.

This idea is not new, being the foundation of the contemplation of religious images in such systems as the use of yantras in Hinduism and mandalas in Buddhism, systems that are paradigmatic for the religious deployment of images in the scope and detail of their methods of image navigation as means of mentally mapping entire cosmologies. Image scholars such as Caroline van Eck in Art, Agency and Living Presence: From the Animated Image to the Excessive Object, operate in relation to such considerations in examining what she describes as the power of artistic forms in terms that suggest a form of autonomy of the work of art in its effect on the human mind or an equality of agency between the mind and the work of art. These conceptions of agency of artistic forms suggest ideas of animism central to religious images understood in some devotional contexts as forms of deity, as with yantra theory (Khanna, 1994) or as capable of being infused by spirit as in yantra theory and forms of Western magical theory represented by the work of Dion Fortune (2000) and in classical African thought (Waite 2016).

In my exposure to African art, however, I am not aware of the contemplative use of religious images as a prominent practice. The traditional focus is on material images as part of a physical shrine complex in which offerings are made. In contrast to this purely physical approach to ritual is the Hindu practice, exemplified by the Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotram (2006), in which purely physical rituals, the combination of physical ritual and contemplation as well as the exclusive use of contemplation may be employed. The Khadgamala involves the navigation of the cosmos through verbal symbols projecting rich visualizations of anthropomorphic and abstract forms, to which mental rather than physical offerings are made. Thus, the movement from physical to mental ritual described by Surrendranath Dasgupta as central in the development of abstract thought in India in his History of Indian Philosophy Vol. 1 plays itself out in such rituals as the Khadgamala.

Falola’s development and dramatization of a theory of religious images in “Ritual Archives” bring such strategies within the purview of classical African art and thought. He does this, however, in a manner that frees the contemplative exercise from the carefully scripted religious contexts of a ritual like the Khadgamala. This is achieved by reworking the religious element in a creatively dynamic manner through free association. The sacred sculptural form is shown as stimulating and inspiring the contemplative’s knowledge of and identification with the specific values associated with the form in a particular cosmology but through the unscripted emergence of ideas within the mind under the impetus of contemplating the artistic form.

The intelligence of the contemplative thus drinks from the theological context of the work of art without being circumscribed by the religious conceptions with which the artistic work is traditionally associated. This freewheeling approach inspires intimacy of identification with the specific ideas associated with a particular artistic form complemented by the freedom to go beyond those ideas. Falola pursues this blend of conventional contemplative strategy and personalized contemplative engagement through a form of what is known in Buddhism as deity yoga and in the Western magical tradition as described in Israel Regardie’s The Tree of Life: A Study in Magic, as the assumption of god form, in which devotees imaginatively identifies themselves with a deity in order to share in the qualities of that entity. Falola evokes the values associated with the Yoruba origin of òrìṣà cosmology or deity Esu through contemplating a sculpture of the deity. This sculpture being anthropomorphic, Falola’s meditation demonstrates how the image may inspire identification with a human being through conjunctions between the values associated with the humanization of the deity and the human figure.

These values demonstrate Yoruba philosophy as ascribing various perceptual significance to different organs of the body within the context of a holistic assessment of the totality of the self as a unified physical and non-physical entity. The non-physical, in this context, includes and extends beyond the mind as an aspect of the mortal self-conditioned by biology and terrestrial experience to include at the core of the self, an immortal centre embodying the totality of the individual’s possibilities. Dialogue with that ultimate centre is the primary goal of Ifá divination and thus the nexus of Ifá’s verbal, visual, spiritual and philosophical complex, as described by such scholars of Ifá as Wande Abimbola in Ifá Divination Poetry and An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus, an understanding reinforced for me by a conversation with Babalawo Joseph Ohomina and central to Adegboyeya Orangun’s investigations of relationships between fate and free will in Yoruba thought through interviews with various Babalawo in Destiny: The Unmanifested Being.

In the succeeding paragraphs, I juxtapose a few of the Falola quotes with quotations from writers in other cultural contexts which his passages take my mind to, thereby suggesting the international and intercultural sonorities of his thought. A key reference I make is to Hindu yantra theory, geometric forms I also discuss in relation to Yoruba òrìṣà cosmology, using a rich collection of images from òrìṣà thought and its Ifá iconography, from Benin Olókun iconography and Hindu yantras, in “Esu to the Mahavidyas: Integrating Contraries through Ideas and Art from Òrìṣà to Tantric Cosmology”. The quotes are rearranged by me in a manner which might be different from the order generated by the writer, a strategy I find useful in distilling the most inspiring ideas in a text in the way I understand them. I also try to present both literal and fuller interpretations of terms Falola does not translate as well as those he translates among those Yoruba expressions he mobilizes in exemplifying his conceptions on the power of images.

The contemplative process Falola demonstrates in “Ritual Archives” is grounded in his assertion that in classical African thought, “spirituality and materiality are united”. Within this unity, “Objects encode the characters of the being they represent” enabling “Ritual objects [to] supply ideas on prayers and philosophy[ building] texts on the environment [opening into] multiple worlds of charms, magic, and medicine [opening] a wide door to a large body of mythologies, stories, legends, and many sayings, short and long”.

A consummate example of this in another context is the Sri Yantra, a circle containing other circles in alignment with a structure of triangles, understood to be the mathematical form of the cosmos as the manifestation of the Goddess Tripurasundari in her geometric form, complementing her material, anthropomorphic and sonic embodiments, that geometric structure being a visual landscape through which the metaphysical and material unity of the cosmos is navigated in the Sri Devi Khadgamala Stotram ritual of which the richest English version known to me is that produced by the Shakti Saddhana group. Yantra theory in the Srividya school centered in Tripura is elaborated, among other sources, by Renfrew Brooks’ Auspicious Wisdom: The Texts and Traditions of Hindu Sakta Tantrism in South India and The Secret of the Three Cities: An Introduction to Hindu Sakta Tantrism, with Maddhu Khanna’s Yantra: The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity providing the best overview known to me of yantra theory in English. Through this plethora of possibilities “Multiple specializations can emerge around image theory, image critical methodologies, image anthropology, image and culture, image philosophy, perceptions and seeing, listening, silences, and image styling”.
Thus, Falola declares: “Images represent mentalities, power, and strength”. Gates and Faux concur, asserting, “It is impossible to think without images”, quoting Aristotle in On the Soul. Falola continues:

[Some] objects actually fit into the description of an archive as a place to keep historical records, although the collection of such objects may defy categorization. Like archives, some objects are permanent records. So also are sacred groves that provide data on the past of an enduring nature. This data touches upon culture, history, and sociology. The location of an archive may be characterized as an archive itself: the grove of a ritual tree is such a place, where the tree and its location constitute a library. Documents in an archive are treated as primary sources. So also should many ritual objects be treated as such as they communicate messages that can be used to reconstruct the past and understand various ideas about the world. Images can be used to generate image theories and create extensive narratives on cultures, trans-cultures, and inter-cultures. They supply critical issues on hybridity. To carve an object is about the representation of self, history, identity, and much more. Images are philosophical expressions, connected with thought and life. Located in museums, we tend to see and appreciate them, not necessarily engage in dialogue with them (921).

Scholarship on art and agency, however, as represented by van Eck, for example, on the range of ways people relate to art in Western history, at times as if they are dealing with living beings, complexifies the meaning of “dialogue” with art. The breadth of discourse on the museum even in the secularity of Western culture, such as Carol Duncan’s consideration of the relationship between museums and human consciousness in “The Art Museum as Ritual” in Donald Preziosi’s The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, complexifies the scope of “appreciate”, in relation to museum art, arguing for the museum as enabling a sense of sacred elevation, making it, incidentally, a ritual archive in the sense of Falola’s use of the term. Her referencing of Germain Bazin, curator of the Louvre, Paris, one of the world’s great cultural treasures, from his The Museum Age, is particularly telling:

[Bazin] wrote that an art museum is ‘a temple where Time seems suspended’; the visitor enters it in the hope of finding one of ‘those momentary cultural epiphanies’ that give him ‘the illusion of knowing intuitively his essence and his strengths’”. Duncan sums up various correlative references in noting that “others…have described art museums as sites which enable individuals to…move beyond the psychic constraints of mundane existence, step out of time, and attain new, larger perspectives (428).

Falola’s frame of thought from where he moves to generating his own approach to the subject, therefore, is closer to that of Susanne Wenger, operating within the religious context of the Yoruba culture that is Falola’s closest inspiration in African culture. Falola’s opening conception and Wenger’s summation in her review of Harold Courlander’s Tales of Yoruba Gods and Heroes in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1976), pp. 74-76, focus their sensitivity to the sacrality of art within the conventional religious contexts in which it is demonstrated. Wenger’s summation is richly evocative in contrasting Western museum collections of sacred art from other cultures with the originating contexts from which that art has been displaced:

The Western mind-dreary, apprehensive and exhausted by the chaotic intellectual stock exchange-inclines to retire from this apocalyptic carnival of values into the “simple and hearty” (as some think) world of fable, legend and myth. Resenting tenseness and sterility of monetary ways of life and linear thought, Western man carries his hunger into libraries and galleries, in whose glassy showcases are laid out the exploits of civilizations. Here linger dethroned, humiliated, effaced gods and their now stale insignia of sacred force and transcendent status. Anthropomorphized vessels of God’s own glory and gloom, they are heaven’s own tormented and disowned sons and daughters, attesting to man’s likeness to his creator (74).

Wenger’s summation is itself correlative with a strand of thought from Western observers of the growth of Western museums like the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London through the acquisitions of artefacts plundered through conquest in foreign, often non-Western cultures. Duncan presents this perspective in a compelling manner that resonates strongly with Wenger’s stand. Referencing Elizabeth Gilmore Holt’s The Triumph of Art for the Public, she describes the18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as deeply enthused by the development of what was then the novelty represented by the culture of the museum but was also appalled at the strategy of building museum collections through plunder, represented by the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s

systematic gathering of art treasures from other countries and their display in the Louvre as trophies of conquest. Goethe saw that the creation of this huge museum collection depended on the destruction of something else, and that it forcibly altered the conditions under which, until then, art had been made and understood. Along with others, he realized that the very capacity of the museum to frame objects as art and claim for them a new kind of ritual attention could entail the negation or obscuring of other, older meanings (431).

In contrast to the attenuation of value Wenger saw in the museum culture’s divorcing of sacred art from its organic context, Wenger, with her Yoruba collaborators, in what became known as New Sacred Art, created shrines in the sacred Osun forest in Nigeria’s Yorubaland, which, as she depicts these creations in A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland:

lie open without declaring themselves…a bridge between gods and the human perceptive imagination, in order to create themselves anew in the image of anyone’s own spiritual demands Wine ferments only in the barrel; so sacred force ripens, secluded in the heart of matter.[ Our shrines and sculptures are like ] winebarrels which seclude the god’s identity so that it can once again ferment into some primal manifestation (138).

Falola moves on from this focus on explicit sacred space as the privileged site of sacred encounter which the starting point of his reflections shares with Wenger’s thought, to advocating sacred space as generated through the encounter between the religious image and the human mind. He thereby responds through his image theory and praxis to the epistemic disjointedness in terms of which classical African thought has been engaged with in the Western academy, a problematic reconfiguration of which the populating of Western museums with plundered African artefacts was part of this process of the recreation of African thought through a Western lens.

Falola does not advocate a wholesale return to classical African shrine culture but a new visually activated, mentalistic orientation in which the shrine emerges at the intersection of the human mind and sacred art, incidentally developing a reflective practice active in Hindu, Buddhist and Western esoteric image epistemology and their metaphysical roots, belief systems and their associated practices marginalized within the global dominance of central
orientations in Western culture. He describes the process through which this conjunction between concrete religious form and its mental transposition takes place:

[Art, particularly the sacred art constituting ritual archives, generates an] epistemology that leads to a series of long conversations on human behaviour and interpersonal relationships in society [and possibly, as with the Sri Yantra, on the integration of self, society, the non-human terrestrial world and the cosmos]. An image moves you towards the spiritual and religious… there is an aesthetic idea living within it, allowing for texts on cultures, forms and styles (922).

He introduces the contemplative logic in terms of which this experience occurs:

While gazing without talking, you create the text, saying something, creating what Nietzsche calls an ‘army of metaphors’. [A process that] generates a wide range of imaginations, and thought systems (922).

Falola’s summation on this evocative process may be better understood through comparison with Kant’s reflections on aesthetics in A Critique of the Power of Judgement as translated by James Creed Meredith:

[By] an aesthetic idea I mean that representation of the imagination which induces much thought, yet without the possibility of any definite thought whatever, i.e., concept, being adequate to it, and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible. In a word, the aesthetic idea is a representation of the imagination, annexed to a given concept, with which, in the free employment of imagination, such a multiplicity of partial representations are bound up, that no expression indicating a definite concept can be found [thus allowing] a concept to be supplemented in thought by much that is indefinable in words, and the feeling of which quickens the cognitive faculties (145).

Kant’s perception is itself enriched in comparison with Michael Faux and S. J. Gates’s observations in “Adinkras: A Graphical Technology for Supersymmetric Representation Theory” that “The use of symbols to connote ideas which defy simple verbalization is perhaps one of the oldest of human traditions( 2).” Illustrating how the stimulation of symbols work in enabling knowledge without exhausting their own evocative depths, an understanding
related to Falola’s dramatization of the evocative force of an Esu figurine, Kant further elaborates:

[Some images give ] the imagination an incentive to spread its flight over a whole host of kindred representations that provoke more thought than admits of expression in a concept determined by words. They furnish an aesthetic idea, which serves the above rational idea as a substitute for logical presentation, but with the proper function, however, of animating the mind by opening out for it a prospect into a field of kindred representations stretching beyond its ken (144).

Falola describes the contemplative process of engaging in imaginative dialogue with a work of art, referring specifically to a figurine of Èṣù: “What originally appears as a small wooden object opens up a vastness of knowledge, its edges become borderless, its existence acquires a force” (922). He depicts the details of contemplative engagement with the Esu figurine:

We are forced to move into the orbits of knowledge in which all component parts of the body become signifiers as ojú Èṣù becomes different from etí Èṣù, okó Èṣù, ògo Èṣù, and inú Èṣù [ ears of Èṣu, penis of Èṣù, forehead of Èṣù, the inwardness of Èṣù]. Each unit is semi-autonomous but aggregated to gbogbo ara Èṣù [the totality of Èṣù’s being] in another layer of meaning. Add Èṣù pípè [perhaps Èṣù as embodiment of totality, the owner of all spaces, interior and exterior] yet another meaning. Like your own orí [the head as analogue of the immortal essence of the self, embodying its ultimate possibilities] , that of Èṣù is also the zone of intelligence and emotions. All his calculations and miscalculations reside here. You can see orí Èṣù, with ògo Èṣù, as fronting multiple ideas. Attributes, then, derive from ojú Èṣù, eté Èṣù, imú Èṣù [eyes, ears and nose of Èṣù] , all connected with personal foibles and destiny. You must trigger your own wisdom and strength to deal with orí Èṣù, and as you do, your own orí begins to breakdown into a series of components as that of ọgbọ́n (wisdom) oròmùgọ̀ (foolishness). You draw in your “bowel,” to rely on ọgbọ́n inú [inward wisdom or wisdom as an inward transmutation of cognitive elements]. Your eyes must work well, to recall your inner essence as in ojú inú [inward vision, inward perception, a movement beyond corporeal or basic perception to penetration to the essential qualities of phenomena beyond their more obvious qualities], and on your perceptions, ojú ọ̀nà [the “eye of the mind”, perception as a mental activity]. Should you be confused, look for an ẹnu àgbà (elder’s wisdom) [wisdom of maturity expressed through speech] for guidance. And following the conversation, your inú (“stomach”) [inwardness, internal nature, essential being as different from appearances] becomes the point of validation as in inú ẹ bàjẹ́ (you are sad) [ literallyyour insides, your interior, your mind as a demonstration of your inner life, is distorted, upset or unhappy ] inú ẹ dùn (you are happy) [ your mind and emotions as the expressions of your inward nature are enjoying a pleasant feeling] , and inú ẹ bu (you are damn stupid) [ literally-your inward state is in bad condition] (922-3).

This imaginative encounter mediated through the work of art representing the deity develops a visceral force generating intimacy of deity and contemplative:

The thought that you express to yourself and to others moves you back to the Èṣù image. Its force becomes a part of you. Whether you hate or like Èṣù, the image is activated. In the process, you must generate text around the image, expressing your religiosity, philosophy, and opinions….We are no longer dealing with the aesthetic of difference, as in looking at objects in the British Museum in London and looking at Èṣù in the National Museum, Alẹṣ́ inlọý ẹ́ at Ìbàdàn or the Èṣù in the Heritage Museum of the University of Ìbàdàn…Èṣù has entered your mental system, active in your conversation with yourself and others. Your thought is a text, on the physical world, on the afterlife, on mythologies, on religions, and more (922).

He sums up the impact of the experience:

One image of Èṣù tells us about social and cultural issues, portrayal of multiple and ambivalent ideas, representations of hybridity, discourse on difference, perception, semiotics, and religion. The Èṣù image, coupled with all other objects as well as all texts, and the entire ritual archives lead us to the indigenous intellectuals and their epistemologies. Combined, they deal with the invisible realities of knowledge, as in witchcraft. But they complicate the visible ones, as in all forms of epistemologies. An artistic production becomes a body of knowledge at various levels— political, cultural, and social. The Èṣù image transfers you to the understanding of culture and society; what is left of the past; and how the past is reformed, deformed, transmogrified, ordered, and reordered. The past may even be disappearing and that image affirms it (922-3).


There are few things as satisfying as reading another writer articulate ideas similar to those you have long worked with as your deepest convictions and most intimate practices, but have not been able to organize, talk less express, with the comprehensiveness and clarity as the writer has done. Reading such a writer, your own thinking is magnified in robustness as theirs complements yours and yours enriches theirs, conceptions in one achieving fuller articulation through encounter with the other, seamless convergences creating a synergistic whole in which the sum is greater than its parts. That has been my experience with studying Toyin Falola’s “Pluriversalism” and “Ritual Archives” essays in the Reader, these essays being central works of Falola as a philosopher of the humanities. Reading his sweeping and incisive analysis, years of aspiration and effort in my cognitive journey are illuminated in ways that excavate their logic, bringing to the surface ideas one has deeply internalized, but, which, before now, existed as inadequately reflexive rationalizations in one’s theoretical landscape.

Reading “Pluriversalism” and “Ritual Archives”, I am moved by discovering ideas I have long conceived and lived by but have never been able to express in the sweeping scope made more powerful by analytical acuity, in which Falola expresses them. I am particularly struck by his reflections on the need to rethink the disciplinary foundations and structures of ideational navigation in terms of which classical African cognitive systems are studied. Can they be explored in terms of a vantage point enriched by their own epistemic and metaphysical foundations? Can the forms of rationality they embody be placed in fruitful dialogue with the forms of rationality evident in Western thought, the dominant cognitive system unavoidable in its pervasiveness, its humanistic significance in its focus on unaided reason vital even as sensitivity to its negative deployment and limitations are fundamental to critically taking advantage of it, particularly as one seeks to engage with non-Western cognitive systems?

These questions are critical for me on account of my scholarly and practical explorations across various cognitive systems and perceptual strategies from various cultures and within various sub-cultures within dominant cultures, from Western magic to Benin nature spirituality and Hinduism. These investigations have enabled various self-publications as well as academic publications and a range of perceptual experiences best summed up for me by Babatunde Lawal and John Annechukwu Umeh’s summations, in “Àwòrán: Representing the Self and its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art” and After God is Dibia: Igbo Divination, Cosmology and Sacred Science in Nigeria of Yoruba and Igbo Afa theories of perception respectively.

They depict these ideas on perception as ranging from conventional to unconventional cognitive forms, from sensory perception to such fundamentals as critical thinking and imagination to such unconventionalities as extra sensory perception and witchcraft and perception of cosmic unity, a conception correlative with Falola’s description of ritual archives as constituting and shaping knowledge about the “visible and invisible world [about] forces that breathe and are breathless” (913).

While I have been working with similar ideas in my individual bodies of work, Falola’s perspective is that of a bird soaring above the creative landscape, its keen eye aggregating possibilities similar to those which I have engaged with in terms of distinctive expressions, his synthesizing intelligence transmuting the particular to the general and unfolding the general into the particular, unfurling a tapestry of myriad, interlinked possibilities, integrating potential that is then unfurled, breaking open an ideational consolidation to reveal a schematically organized universe of possibilities, a grain of sand, a tightly woven condensation of myriads, split open to reveal the cosmos, “In the heart of a minute particle of dust/is present a vast scroll/as large as the three thousand fold world/and on this scroll is recorded all things without exceptions/in this world system of three-thousand fold multi-thousand worlds” ( Gomez, 1995), invoking an image from the Buddhist Avataṃsaka Sūtra similar to another from the English poet William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” on seeing the world in a grain of sand.

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Toyin Falola and Akintunde Akinyemi (Eds). Encyclopedia of the Yoruba. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016. 371pp.


Encyclopedia of the Yoruba is a single-volume encyclopedia that is comprised of 285 entries of short essays written by 188 authors who are predominantly scholars and academic researchers from Africa, Europe and North America. The different word-ranges of the essays vary from 1000 words (for 78 entries) to 750 words (for 88 entries) and 500 words (for 119 entries). Across these entries, the encyclopedia gives a complex, yet detailed, presentation of the Yorùbá, a dominant ethnic group in West Africa and the most prominent African cultural population, identity and presence in the African diaspora including North America, the Caribbean and South America. It presents the Yorùbá with respect to their involvements in, and interactions with, different sociocultural experiences, practices and expressions by “emphasizing the peculiarities, features, and commonalities of the people” (xi).

Following an alphabetical ordering, each entry in the encyclopedia is complete on its own as it examines and discusses a subject, subject matter, concept or topic that shares an affiliation with the Yorùbá world in time (the traditional past in all its distant and intricate temporal dimensions and the modern present in all its complex interrelations) and/or space (Yoruba homes across West Africa and the African diaspora. Such concentrations of the entry include persons/personalities, demographics, worldviews and cosmological values and elements, and several material and non-material aspects of the Yorùbá culture and folklore, and their corresponding affiliates.

It is important to add that the completeness of the entries is considerably informed by the suitability of the word-ranges used. It is commendable that the editors are able to determine the word-range that fits the discourse of every entry and the authors are also able to conform. By writing across the various word-limits, the authors have been able to give adequate information about their subjects of discussion. Each word-limit is moderate enough to convey the basic information on the subject or topic of every entry.

While the alphabetical arrangement of the entries seems to make them inorganic, there is an adequate use of cross-references at the end of almost each entry. This caters for interconnections and complementary links between two or more entries, and thus gives the encyclopedia some measure of organic structure. A reader that seeks to know about a subject in the volume is therefore bound to gather as much extensive information as possible by consulting related entries apart from the main entry on the subject. In addition, the entries all have bibliographical references which users of the encyclopedia will find useful for further reading.

Unarguably, this volume appropriately qualifies as an encyclopedia. It is an invaluable resource that presents ample and invaluable information about the Yorùbá. Nevertheless, an addition of some more entries may be expedient in making the subsequent edition of the encyclopedia serves its readers better. For instance, entries on some persons will be found worthwhile: Herbert Macaulay, who is considered to be the founder of Nigerian nationalism; Candido Da Rocha, Lagos first millionaire and native of Ilesha who was born of a returnee slave; Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, a political campaigner and foremost women’s rights activist; Wande Abimbola, a professor of Yorùbá language and literature and prominent Ifá scholar and practitioner; and Taiwo Akinkunmi, who designed the flag of Nigeria. In addition, there is need for an entry on twins (ìbejì) considering the fact that they are phenomenal and revered personalities as evident in Yorùbá belief system and orality. The entries related to Islam may also be supported with an entry on “Ààre Musulumi” (president of the Muslims). This is an Islamic chieftaincy title among Yorùbá Muslims given to honor a person as the number one Muslim in Southwest Nigeria.

Similarly, entries on places like Abeokuta, Lagos and Badagry will also be good additions to the Encyclopedia. Like Ife and Ibadan which already have entries in the Encyclopedia, these other places also have socio-historical narratives that are crucial to understanding the development of the Yorùbá nation, identity and presence across times, the traditional past and the modern present alike. It will also be a good idea to have an entry on the physical and natural components of the Yorùbá world such as water bodies, hills and rocks. This is because some of them serve religious, social and economic purposes in addition to having mythical and oral historical narratives. In this respect, the editors could consider inviting entries on the River Oya (Niger), River Yewa, River Ogun, River Osun, Ikogosi Warm Spring, Olumirin Waterfall, Olumo Rock and Idanre Hill.

It would also be a good idea if some authors could incorporate more ideas and information into their essays. For instance, the first essay in the Encyclopedia on “Abiola, Moshood Kasimawo Olawale” needs to have a clear reference to Chief Ernest Shonekan. This is because among other issues surrounding his emergence as head of the interim government on August 26, 1993, Chief MKO Abiola was appointed as the vice president. Therefore, it may be necessary that the author of this essay expatiate on his idea of “quick succession of administration” (20) by giving the example of the emergence and fall of the interim government. The essay on “Comic Arts” could be enlarged to include contemporary practices especially as informed by the digital media and cinematic performances. The examples of Moses Olaiya with his Awada and Gbenga Adeboye, whose comic performances considerably qualify him as a major pioneer of the Nigerian Standup Comedy and whose varieties of media and cultural productions are distinctive in the Nigerian mainstream culture, would be much relevant in this respect. In a similar vein, the entry on “Media: Radio and Television” may have to recognize pioneering roles of Adebayo Faleti in the television industry and cinematic engagements. Also, the entry “Nollywood: Films and Cinema” could hint at the idea of the New Nollywood with respect to the pioneering and continually predominant efforts of Yorùbá filmmakers by also referring to Kunle Afolayan in addition to Tunde Kelani.

The Encyclopedia of the Yoruba is a huge and priceless contribution to studies in African and the black diaspora across different disciplines including literary and cultural studies, history, philosophy, religion, political science, sociology and psychology. The efforts of the authors and editors are sincerely commendable. The suggested recommendations should heighten the significance of the Encyclopedia in its next edition.

Volume 3 :: Number 1 :: Fall 2018 ISSN 2473-4713

The Yorùbá Studies Review is a refereed biannual journal dedicated to the study of the experience of the Yorùbá peoples and their descendants globally. The journal covers all aspects of the Yorùbá transnational, national, and regional presence, both in their West Africa’s homeland and in diasporic spaces, past and present. The journal embraces all disciplines in the humanities, so- cial sciences, and the basic /applied sciences in as much as the focus is on the Yorùbá affairs and the intersections with other communities and prac- tices worldwide. The journal will foster and encourage interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary approaches dealing with a wide range of theoretical and applied topics including, but not limited to: cultural production, identities, religion, arts and aesthetics, history, language, knowledge system, philosophy, gender, media, popular culture, education and pedagogy, politics, business, economic issues, social policy, migration, geography and landscape, environment, health, technology, and sustainability.

Yorùbá Studies Review seeks to serve as the platform for a new generation of transformative scholarship that is based on cutting-edge research, novel methodologies, and interpretations that tap into the deep wells of Yorùbá epistemology and ontology. YSR will also publish critical review essays, book reviews, and scholarly debates on topical issues.

The Yorùbá Studies Review will publish research and review manuscripts in the five languages that are primarily used in the Yorùbá world– English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Yorùbá. Where possible, abstracts of papers will be translated into English.
A section on “Archives” will reprint older materials to provide a wider access to a variety of documents.

The Yorùbá Studies Review is hosted by three institutions:
The University of Texas at Austin
The University of Florida, Gainesville
The University of Ibadan, Nigeria
All posted materials should be addressed to: Editorial Office Toyin Falola
Yorùbá Studies Review
Department of History
The University of Texas at Austin 104 Inner Campus Drive
Austin, TX 78712-0220


The subscription rate in the U.S. and Canada is $30 per copy for individuals, and $150 for annual subscriptions for institutions. For overseas subscriptions, postage will be added.

For general inquiry, send e-mail to: toyinfalola@austin.utexas.edu