In 2015 I stayed for a few days on the university campus of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, during the inauguration of the Ọọ̀ni, the king of the Yorùbá people. A friend of mine was working at the language department and introduced me to his colleague: When I entered the office for Portuguese studies I saw posters on the wall from Òrìṣà conferences and books about Yorùbá traditions. The professor himself was wearing a beaded necklace, something I knew from my time in Cuba and Brazil. There it would not have caught my attention, but it was surprising to spot ìlẹ̀kẹ̀ in an academic surrounding in Nigeria. I tried my best to greet in Yorùbá language and after a few words in English we quickly switched to Spanish a lo Cubano, before ending our conversation in German. This is how I met Felix Ayoh’OMIDIRE, who lived and worked in Brazil, Cuba and many other countries, where he taught, studied and contributed to Yorùbá culture. I am honored that he found time to answer my questions! Read about the unique experience of Felix Ayoh’OMIDIRE – between Òrìṣà, Oricha, Orixá and Orisha!
Félix Ayoh’OMIDIRE is a professor of Afro-Latin-American Studies at the Department of Foreign Languages, Ọbáfẹmi Awólọ́wọ̀ University, Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria. He is also the Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies in the same University. He has widely travelled, studied and taught in diverse countries of the three major Atlantic continents: Africa, Europe and the Americas. He was an Exchange Professor of Yorùbá language, culture and civilization at the Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais, Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil between 2002 and 2006. He was also a frequent guest lecturer in various institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean – Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Jamaica, and the USA. His major academic interest is the mapping of the Yorùbá cultural influence in the construction of cultural identities in the diverse locales of the Afro-Latin Diaspora. In the course of his research and interactions with the Diaspora, he developed a theory of Afro-Latin identity known as Yorubaianidade, originally conceived in Bahia, Brazil and later applied to other locales of what he calls the Yorùbá Atlantic. Apart from his native Yorùbá, Félix Ayoh’OMIDIRE speaks fluently English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, and Italian.
Moussa: Felix, what brought you to Brazil and how was your first encounter as a born Yorùbá with the diaspora Orixá religion?
Felix: My first trip to Brazil was in 1990. I was an undergrate then, and I went the do what is referred to in Nigerian universities as a Year-Abroad or Immersion Programme for Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. It was an eye-opening experience for me, as a born Yoruba, because in the seven months I lived in Salvador at that time I came to realize what a great treasure we had in the Yoruba culture and worldview. Treasures that were so highly valued by Brazilians of different backgrounds. I came to realize also that the Yoruba religious culture, something I grew up with, but which I was taking for granted, was the very essence of the identity construction of many Brazilians, and - as I discovered later - equally of many Afro-Latin-American subjects from other countries such as Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Colombia, Venezuela, and the United States of America, especially the New York and the Miami poles and, in a more special way, the Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina, where an African-American king rules his subjects within a context that is heavily modelled after the political, religious, economic and cultural ethos of the Ọ̀yọ́-Yorùbá-African nation.
You are a linguist, Yorùbá is your mother tongue. You have a unique understanding of how the ‘ritual’ language has changed over time. How much do you understand from the ‘Nagô’ prayers when you are attending Brazilian ceremonies?
Well, first of all, I don’t know if I am really a linguist. I do speak, write and think in many languages, but I don’t believe my philosophy about language would allow me to think of myself as a linguist. From the academic and disciplinary point of view, most linguists, at least to my knowledge, are really not interested in learning and speaking their target languages. Rather, because of its vocation as the science of language, the preoccupation of linguistics is more about describing how a language works and behaves in terms of its grammar, lexis, morphology, etc. with the aim of making the learning of such a language easy for those - like myself - who need and want to speak the language. Most linguists I know end up not speaking as many languages as one would expect, oftentimes lacking in fluency and day-to-day language use competence in the very languages they are supposed to be specilaized in. On the other hand, I see myself as someone who goes for the language, using all the tools and assistance I can get from linguistics, but not worrying too much about the prescriptive aspects of the language acquisition process. Those who are famliar with my language use methodology would attest to the fact that, even when I am not too confortable with the grammar of a language, that does not stop me from using the language whenever I find myself in the company of other speakers of that language. In essence, I have always believed in the instinctive language acquisition methodology of children when it comes to language learning: I speak first and find out about the grammatical correctness of my language acts in due course! My language use motto is to ‘speak to every man in the language he operates best in, that is, for as long as I can keep up with his vocabulary’. For me, that is what I jokingly refer to in my foreign language teaching methods as the true experience of ‘speaking in tongues’. To me, the beauty and, indeed, the fun of it all is in the ‘exclusiveness’ of the communication experience I want to have with every interlocutor inasmuch as my knowledge in his language and culture would permit.
Now to go back to your question on my experiences with the Yoruba spoken in the diaspora. I would say that, to me, it has been another highly enriching experience. Again, I think it is strictly the typical linguists who would worry so much about ‘how greatly’ a language has changed over time and space. My interest is to communicate with people and not to judge their depth and language competence - except, of course, when I am operating in the examiner mode! So for me, the fact that Yoruba language still survives in the Latin-American and Caribbean societies like Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad is already a delight. And luckily for me, my early-childhood interest in the various dialects of the Yoruba language spoken in Nigeria always comes in handy whenever I listen to speakers of the so-called ancient Yoruba in the diaspora. To be frank with you, I do not accept when people try to call the Yoruba used in these diasporas as the ‘ritual’ Yoruba, because I don’t think that is a correct classification. To me, the fact that most users of this diaspora Yoruba have learned it within the ‘ritual’ contexts of Candomblé or Santería is not enough to refer to the language they so use as a ‘ritual’ language. The name I have coined for them is YoruBaian and YoruCuban languages.
I believe it is more a question of syncronic and diacronic evolution of the Yoruba language in the diaspora under the influence of the distance in space and time that has resulted in the distinctive differences between them and the Yoruba we use in the African homeland. In any case, this is how I try to explain the phenomenon: in most cases, the distance in time and space has resulted in the loss - complete or partial - of the fluency in the use of various prosodic aspects of the Yoruba language such as conjunctions, prepositions, interjections, conjugations, and other aspects that, within the strictly communicative functions, can be considered as secondary because all they do is to ‘enhance the intensity’ of the more fundamental grammatical classes such as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. In the final analysis, a close examination will reveal that what marks the basic difference today between the Yoruba used in Bahia and Cuba on the one hand, and that of the Yorubaland in Africa on the other, is that, the diaspora users are not good at handling the connectives and other grammatical functions beyond the basic nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that occur frequently in the Candomblé and Santería contexts. My experience with some of these diasporic subjects is that, if they are given a proper training in the contemporary Yoruba as spoken in the African homeland, they can passably ‘recover’ those ‘lost’ or ‘missing’ grammatical notions. Pronounciation is however another issue altogether, because the language socialization of these diaspora subjects in Portuguese and Spanish has invariably structured their phonetic apparatus such that it would take the very committed ones a tremendous effort to master some of the sounds of the Yoruba language such as ‘p’, ‘sh’, ‘gb’, ‘y’, ‘j’ and, of course, the tonal variations of the oral and nasal vowels sounds. Notwithstanding this phonetic limitations, over the past three decades or so of my contact with the YoruBaian and YoruCuban speakers, I can easily understand between 45% and 65% of the words and expressions that occur in their speech.
In comparison, how is it for a Yorùbá speaker to meet the Lukumí in Cuba?
I think my response above has partly answered this question. However, if I can be more specific, I would say that I found the Lucumí of Cuba easier to understand. I once gave a mini-course cum seminar on the Yoruba language and culture to a predominantly Lucumí audience at the headquarter of the Asociación Yoruba de Cuba in Havana. Using the Yoruba learner I had published in Brazil titled ‘Àkọ̀gbádùn: ABC da Língua, Cultura e Civilização Iorubanas’ (Salvador: EDUFBA, Editora da Universidade Federal da Bahia, 2004), I could see that the Cuban-Lucumí learners were able to pronounce slightly better than my Brazilian learners despite the fact that it is actually the Hispanic speakers who tend to typically substitute the Yoruba sound ‘j’ for ‘y’ as in their ‘Yemaya’ instead of the Yoruba ‘Yemonja’ or ‘meyi’ for ‘meji’. Over the years, after various visits to Cuba, I have come to conclude that the relative fluency of the Lucumí speakers may not be unconnected to the preservation of the Ifá oracular texts in its original Yoruba, whereby most Cuban babalao or oriate would chant the first segment of the Odù Ifá in Yoruba before proceeding onto further exposition of the Odù in Spanish.
You recently became Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies of the Ọbáfẹmi Awólọ́wọ̀ University in Ilé-Ifẹ̀. What is the mission of the institute?
Yes, I am the current Director of the Institute of Cultural Studies of my University. The Institute was created as a sucessor of the defunct Institute of African Studies which was dismembered in 1982 to make room for various Departments like Music, African Languages and Literature, Religious Studies and Dramatic Arts. As a predominantly research institute, the official mission of the Institute of Cultural Studies at O.A.U. is to serve as the guardian of cultural lores and as the major outlet through which the university fulfils the second part of its motto: ‘For Learning and Culture’. Our focus is thus on the preservation, documentation, and dissemination of Yoruba and African cultural practices and manifestations in the diverse intellectual and academic discourse areas such as Yoruba-African philosophy and worldview, traditional festivals, myths and legends, music, dance and drums, food and nurture, corporal and cosmetic practices and praxis, dressing, language use, and other cultural values. Some of the tangible products of the aforementioned include the periodic organization and hosting of the Ife Festival of the Arts that is dedicated to the celebration of different facets of the arts, science and technological traditions of the Yoruba nation. The Ife Festival of the Arts Series was originally conceived as a periodic re-enactment of the well-attended world-class FESTAC ’77 that is still fondly remembered in many corners of the African and African Diaspora world today, exactly 40 years later. The next edition of the Ife Festival of the Arts will be in 2018. The themes and modalities will soon be available on the Institute and University websites as well as over various other platforms. Others activities of the Institute include regular seminars and symposia as well as occasional conferences on themes around cultural, tecnological and developmental issues.
What are the current or upcoming projects on the Institute of Cultural Studies?
The institute has many projects in the offing. Apart from the 2018 Ife Festival of the Arts that I have just mentioned above, we are going to have a multipronged Arts cum Drama and Musical Events around the theme of the enduring legacy of Duro Ladiipo, as part of the 40th anniversary of his death. There will also be an international conference at the institute which hopes to bring scholars of Yoruba and African cultures together in 2018. The institute also hopes to hold the Annual Wande Abimbola Lecture in 2018 to mark the 85th Birthday of the Awise Agbaye.
We met when I was visiting Nigeria in 2015. The biggest difference for me, after many travels to the Yorùbá diaspora, was that the term ‘Yorùbá’ is not connected at all to Òrìṣà worship. It is a culture, an ethnic group, a language, while in the diaspora, as I got to know it, it is a religion.
Well, I will say your observation is both right and incorrect. It is right to observe that the term ‘Yoruba’ in the contemporary context englobes the totality of the weltanschauung of a people. Yes, Yoruba is an ethnic identity, ‘being Yoruba’ today, as always, has a peculiar political, economic, social, historical, philosophical, ethical, artistic and aesthetic connotations. By inference, this totality is what is generally understood as the Yoruba culture, and, invariably, religion and spirituality are part and parcel of that culture. In my interactions with the Yoruba diaspora in Latin-America and the Caribbean, I am often faced with questions similar to the one you just asked. The response I always love to give, both in my public lectures, as well as research statements is that, for practical and historical reasons, the tendency in the Diaspora is to go metonymic about cultural identities as a whole. This has both a practical or pragmatic advantage in that, when the people of the diaspora decide to use a part to signify the whole, they are being pragmatic because that is probably the most readily adaptable way of accessing the values of their African heritage. On the other hand, such a metonymic tendency can result in something that is called essentialism and redutionism in cultural and identity theories. Both are often seen as negative because they may lead to undesirable stereotyping of the complete weltanschauung of the affected group. I tried to develop this theoretical discourse in a seminar I gave in Caracas, Venezuela, some years back titled: 'Asa u Ochá: de la cultura a la religión Yoruba' in which I developed the theory of metonymy in the adaptation of the Yoruba-African Worldview as a fundamental ingredient within the process of the construction of Afro-Latin-American cultural identities using the bias of the Ifá and Òrìṣà religious traditions.
However, as I always like to point out to my students and interlocutors in the diaspora, this metonymic use of the Yoruba worldview as a religious reference is not an exclusive invention of the Afro-Latin-American diasporas per se, because, long before the Ifá and Òrìṣà ethos became widespread in the Americas, the ethnic name ‘Nago’ used in the identification of the Yoruba-speaking peoples in the present-day Republic of Benin was already widely used by the neighbouring Dahomeans in the late 18th Century to refer to every individual who professed the religion of the Òrìṣà, be they of Fon, Adja, Mahi, Ewe or Mina ethnic extraction. As eloquently demonstrated in the writings of many eminent scholars who are specialists on that era, namely Melville Herskovitch, Olabiyi Babalola Yai, Pierre Verger, among others, the term 'Nago' in the acceptance of the Fon-speaking peoples of the 18th Century referred to an olórìṣà whose real ethnic identity may be Fon, Egun, Adja, Mahi, Ewe or Mina. This may have been carried over to the diaspora in some way. And, as I have made clear in my 2005 doctoral thesis titled “Yorubanidade mundializada: o reinado da oralitura em textos yorubá-africanos e afro-baianos contemporâneos” (Salvador, ILUFBA, download pdf), the greatest proportion of those who refer to themselves in Brasil as Nago, in Cuba as Lucumí, in Haiti as Nago and in Trinidad as Yarribas, only qualify for such an identity by adscription and conscious adoption since chattel slavery had virtually made it impossible for the enslaved Africans and their descendants to preserve systematic records of their exact ethnic and biological ancestry. Thus, it was only by adoption that most people claim what I call their Yorubanidade. It was only through the innovative project initiated by Henry Louis Gates that most Afro-Latinos are now able to trace their African ancestry through DNA tests. At last, after almost 400 years, many blacks in Latin America can now know not only the exact percentage of African blood they have, but also locate themselves on the map of Africa by discovering from what ethnic group their African ancestors were kidnapped back in those days.
Through your contacts worldwide you brought delegations from Brazil or Cuba to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ to reconnect to the source of their religion. What is your experience hosting groups of olórìṣà in Yorùbáland?
It is always a kind of mixed feelings for African descendants to visit Africa for the first time. But that also depends on what each one came looking for. You have those who just wanted some adventure, without necessarily having any intention of ‘reconnecting’, and, of course, those who came in search of Africa. The motive of the visit will largely determine where each group goes, what they are willing to experience and how willing they are to adapt to the African ‘difference’. A lady from Guadaloupe made a wonderful statement that to me summarized the quest for most visitors from the African diaspora. She said, “it is no use people setting out from thousands of miles away with the hope of finding Africa if Africa had not ‘found’ them already”. This is because, when the motive is not telluric enough, the tendency is for such people to search for in Africa a replica of what they left behind in their New World abode, which, invariably would lead to some form of frustration. Such are the ones who complain about the long list of ‘lacks’ in Africa – lack of electricity, high-speed internet, 6-star hotels, GPS-maps, etc. On the other hand, for those who have already been ‘found’ by Africa, especially those ones who are interested in re-discovering their roots, either historically, culturally or spiritually, they feel readily at home whenever they come to Africa. Unfortunately, on can not say that all olórìṣà belong to the latter group. It has happened that one receives a filho/filha de santo or even a pai/mãe de santo or an ọmọ òrìṣà who is the complaining type, ever ready to point out what is not avaliable in Africa. However, I can boldly say that, fortunately, such people are in the minority. I have hosted wonderful people in the course of my interactions with the diaspora and the overall impression is that Africa has really found them. These are people who are willing to experience Africa firsthand and so would always be eager to live the African dream, side by side with the African reality.
The new Ọọ̀ni, the king of the Yorùbá people, made a tour through the US and met influential santeros from the Cuban diaspora. Is this a new development? Are the different branches – like Candomblé or Santería – getting closer to Yorùbáland? Or has this been ongoing since decades and it’s just because of the Social Media that this is so visible?
No, it is not an entirely new development. Santeros and olórìṣà worldwide have been getting closer to Yorubaland since at least the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Orisa World Tradition started promoting meetings of olórìṣà on the two continents of Africa and the Americas, with annual congresses rotatively held between the African Yoruba homeland and diaspora localities such as Bahia, São Paulo, Havana, and a few places in the USA. On the individual level, there have also been many re-approximation moves on both sides of what I love to call the Yoruba Atlantic. In fact, it is a major movement that has been widely discussed within academic and intellectual circles where it is described as a process of Re-Africanization of the Afro-Latin-American religious traditions. In my research works, I prefer to call it a Re-Yorubanization process because more than 80% of Afro-Latin religious practitioners who come to Africa almost instinctively choose Yorubaland, either because they want to renew their Òòṣà vows or to undergo fresh initiations into Ifá and any of the Òrìṣà. In fact this process became the centre of some controversies at some point because some people believe it is a way of putting down the Latin-American Òrìṣà traditions as impure or incomplete. However, my stand has always been that we need not think that way at all. To me every tradition is valid and complete in their own right. Indeed, all the so-called traditions, i.e. Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, Trinidadian Orisa, Haitian Vaudou, etc. are nothing but complimentary elements of the same body of Òrìṣà knowledge and tradition.
Now to return to your reference to the visits of the Ọọ̀ni, again, I can boldly tell you that such visits of a reigning Ọọ̀nirìṣà is not new to the Yoruba diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. At least, as late as the early 1980s, the late Ọọ̀ni Okunade Sijuade undertook many of such visits to places like Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba. Many of my respected olórìṣà friends in La Habana still speak fondly of the ‘miracle’ of the rain that fell in Havana the moment the Ọọ̀ni stepped down onto Cuban soil, ending a rather long drought that the city was facing at the time. In the same vein, the reigning Ọọ̀nirìṣà, His Imperial Majesty, Ọọ̀ni Adeyeye Eniitan Babatunde Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, has embarked on such historic voyages to visit his children in the diaspora in his capacity as the Àrólé Odùduwà.
Of course, you are very correct in your observation that the explosion of the social media has transformed such visits into global fiestas as can be seen from the innumerable posts, tweets, instagram pics and youtube videos of such visits. This, in my opinion, are very positive accessories that have today added a new dimension to such visits. Perhaps, one only needs to sound a note of caution on the dangers of some abusive use that could evolve therefrom, especially considering the way such media could incite some disrespect for some millennial cultural norms and protocols. But, that, my dear Koné, is a discussion for another day.
With that, I would like to thank you for the opportunity of this interview and also take the opportunity to invite your readers look us up at the Institute of Cultural Studies, Ọbáfẹmi Awólọ́wọ̀ University, Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria, where they will be able to further engage with this exciting Yoruba cultural world! More information is available on the webpage of the Institute http://ics.oauife.edu.ng!
Thank you, Félix, for this interview!
(Note: Yorùbá words in this text were edited by the interviewer who is responsible for errors.)
Institute of Cultural Studies at the Ọbáfẹmi Awólọ́wọ̀ University, Ilé-Ifẹ̀
Àkọ̀gbádùn and other books by OMIDIRE at publisher EDUFBA in Brazil