Sunday 26 September 2021

Remembering Moremi Ajasoro

History is replete with women of valour who not only towered head and shoulders over the men of their own time and age but who also left their imprints in the sand of time. Having attained the status of demi-gods, such women, in some cases, are worshipped till date by devotees. Statues stand in their recognition, keeping their memories alive while History books continue to recall their heroic acts. Scriptures record outstanding women like Prophetess Deborah, wife of Lapidoth. Where men feared to tread, Deborah led the army of Israel to defeat Sisera and deliver Israel from the oppression of Jabin, king of Canaan. Ruth, through her self-sacrificing service, devotion and faithfulness to what she considered as her manifest destiny, unwittingly wrote her name into the lineage of Jesus Christ. Queen Esther of the “If I perish, I perish” fame took upon herself an unimaginable risk in the desperate effort to save her Jewish people from looming peril. These were women of uncommon courage and devotion to duty who put others before self and the common cause above selfish interests!

The exploits of the Amazons, the women warriors of old Dahomey Kingdom, remain indelible in living memory.  They were an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which existed until 1904. A frontline military unit formed during Queen Hangbe's rule, the Amazons’ history traces as far back as the 17th century, and theories suggest they started as a corps of elephant hunters who impressed the Dahomey king with their skills while their husbands were away fighting other tribes. From the time of King Houegbadja's son, King Agaja, who reigned from 1708 – 1732, the Dahomey Amazons were established as bodyguards armed with muskets and were used as militia to defeat neighbouring kingdoms. Whether conquering neighbouring tribes or resisting European forces, the Amazons were known for their fearlessness. In one of the final battles against the French in 1892 before the kingdom became a French colony, it is said that only 17 out of 434 Amazons came back alive.

What of the legendary Queen Amina of Zaria? Commonly known as the warrior queen, Amina was the first woman to become the Sarauniya (queen) in a male-dominated society. She expanded the territory of the Hausa people to its largest borders in history. Although no one is sure of the exact dates of her birth and death (1533 – 1610 ?), Amina, it is believed, was born in the middle of the sixteenth century to King Nikatau, the 22nd ruler of Zazzau, and Queen Bakwa Turunku and ruled between 1536 and 1566. She had a younger sister named Zaria, after whom the modern city of Zaria (Kaduna State) was renamed by the British in the early twentieth century. Were the dead able to look back, Queen Amina will weep in her grave to behold what has become of the Hausa kingdom she laboured hard to build.

The Benin (Bini) Empire boasts a plethora of great women of valour in the likes of Emotan of Benin, Queen Idia, and Queen Iden. Emotan (born between 1380 and 1400 ?) traded in foodstuffs around the Oba Market in the ancient Benin kingdom during the reign of the usurper, Oba Uwaifiokun, and his elder brother and rightful heir to the throne, Prince Ogun, who later took the name "Oba Ewuare the Great" after becoming the Oba of Benin. Emotan is credited with having helped Prince Ogun to retrieve his usurped throne from Uwaifiokun. For this, her charity works, and many other valiant acts, Emotan was decorated as “conscience of justice” and in 1950, a life-size bronze statue was erected in her honour in Benin.

Queen Idia was the mother of Esigie, the Oba of Benin who ruled from 1504 to 1550. She played a very significant role in the rise and reign of her son, being described as a great warrior who fought relentlessly before and during her son's reign. Queen Iden is yet another heroine whose sacrifice helped shape the Benin Kingdom. Queen during the reign of Oba Ewuape in about 1700 AD, she is known to have volunteered herself as a sacrificial lamb for the welfare of her husband and that of the entire kingdom.

The Yoruba are not without their own equivalent of Emotan, Amina, Idia or Iden. Take, for example, Bilikisu Sungbo: According to oral history, 'Sungbo' was an Ijebu noblewoman named Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo who was actually the biblical  Queen of Sheba. A wealthy and industrious widow who was greatly revered by her people, Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo built Sungbo Eredo, a massive monument second only to the Great Wall of China, as a personal memorial.

In “History rediscovered: Sungbo’s Eredo, Nigeria’s lost Yoruba kingdom”, Michael Driver had this to say: In Nigeria, Africa’s largest monument is having a   renaissance, as locals and tourists revisit the ancient ruins that lay undiscovered for centuries. Second in size only to the Great Wall of China, Sungbo’s Eredo in Ijebu-Ode is a staggeringly impressive hand-built system of defence walls dating back to around the year 1,000 and located just an hour’s drive from Lagos.

"The name ‘Sungbo’ is attributed to an Ijebu noblewoman named Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo who, as legend has it, was actually the Queen of Sheba according to biblical and Quranic accounts. A wealthy and industrious widow who was greatly revered by her people, Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo built this monument as a personal memorial. It is located in close proximity to her grave in Oke-Eiri, a town north of the Eredo which pilgrims continue to visit to this day. As historian Ed Emeka Keazor observes, Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo essentially ordered this to be built as a monument to her greatness because she was childless and, in traditional society, a child is seen to be the ultimate preservation of your legacy. Because she didn’t have a child, she wanted something built as a reminder of her stature as an accomplished woman.

“It is a site that elicits both mystery and curiosity since its discovery in 1999 by the late British archaeologist, Dr Patrick Darling. Since then, much attention and debate has centred around its existence and, indeed, its purpose... Darling estimated that Sungbo’s Eredo ‘covers 2,500 square miles (6,475 Square kilometres) and consists of more than 500 interconnected communal enclosures and that most of the complex was built progressively over a 450-650-year period – from between AD 800 and 1000 up until the late 15th century, when much of the area was conquered by the Benin Empire’. It is also suggested that the wall system not only served as a defence mechanism but was built as a way to unify an area of diverse communities into a single kingdom. Sungbo’s Eredo consists of a 10,000-mile-long (16,000-kilometre) series of ramparts naturally camouflaged by patches of moss and partly concealed within the rainforests of the region.

“Carbon-dating suggests the monument is over a thousand years old...Sungbo’s Eredo mirrors the construction process of similar defence systems found in Nigeria, including the ancient walls of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Ilesa and the infamous Benin Walls (called 'Iya' in the Benin language). The latter was, at one time, the largest man-made structure in the world, with 6,500-kilometres of ramparts ranging in size from shallow trenches to gigantic 20-metre (65-feet)-high walls once surrounding ancient Benin City. Even though Sungbo’s Eredo has been listed as a UNESCO Heritage site since 1 November 1995, it is still not on the radar for many history-lovers, or even to be widely visited by Nigerians. The site is a testament to the early engineering innovation of an indigenous population and speaks of one woman’s legacy, vision, prowess and ambition that have stood the test of time. A pre-colonial architectural and engineering feat... The best time to visit Sungbo’s Eredo is during the dry season and, as the trail leads deep into the forest, loose, comfortable clothing and walking boots are recommended. Avoid visiting during Easter-time, as this is when pilgrims flock to the area to pay tribute to Bilikisu Sungbo. Hiring a tour guide is essential as the Eredo is virtually impossible to discover without the aid of someone who knows it well”.

I wouldn't know why the author chose to describe the Benin Walls as “infamous” but I grew up learning that my native Owo had similar defensive walls and moats called “iyara”. Owo and Benin share a lot of historical and cultural affinity. But perhaps the best known and the most venerated Yoruba heroine is Moremi Ajasoro. Moremi was a legendary Yoruba queen and folk heroine famed to have led the liberation of the Yoruba kingdom of Ife from the neighbouring Ugbo Kingdom. Married to Oranmiyan, the son of Oduduwa, the first king of Ife, Moremi lived in the 12th century; she hailed from Offa in present-day Kwara South Senatorial District. I visited her shrine at Offa decades back when I was in the town to interview Chief JS Olawoyin, one of the “old reliables” who stood with Awo like the wall of Gibraltar.

Moremi’s iconic statue towers at Ile-Ife as a memorial to her votive sacrifice to save her people from annihilation. She willingly surrendered to the invaders of her people, got married to the enemy king, and seized the opportunity to discover the so-called “Forest People’s” military strategy. She thereafter escaped and returned to Ife to reveal that secret to the Ile-Ife people. Moremi is also reputed to have paid the heart-wrenching vow she made to the gods for success.

 For her heroics, many honours have been bestowed on Moremi. A hall of residence stands in her honour at the picturesque Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in the same manner that Idia Hall stands in honour of Queen Idia at the University of Ibadan, and Amina Hall in honour of Queen Amina at both the University of Lagos and the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, among others. Not done yet, a consortium of media gurus led by my friend and Comrade, Dele Oguntayo and Fountain Bloom Limited, is putting together a Moremi Ajasoro Annual Lecture, in collaboration with the Palace of the Ooni of Ife. Kabiyesi the Ooni has personally given a letter of approval and recommendation under his own hand as the Arole Oduduwa Olofin Adimula. One of the legacies of the Ooni Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, Ojaja II, is the gigantic Moremi Ajasoro statue he caused to be erected at Ife in honour of Moremi. According to reliable information, Yeye Olufunso Amosun has been designated as the "Moremi of the Source" by the Ooni. The Moremi Ajasoro Annual Lecture, when it kicks off this October or sometime thereafter, will be another well-deserved feather in the hat for an unforgettable heroine of the Yoruba people. Surely,the labours of our heroes and heroines past shall not be in vain! As the Yoruba engage in the ongoing make or mar battle for self-preservation, self-rejuvenation and self-determination, it is important to draw inspiration from the heroics of Moremi, who, in one stride, combined beauty, brain, and bravado. One author described her as “the Yoruba woman who sacrificed everything” for the liberation of her people. Not only is that true, it also should be emulated! Assailed by outside enemies and quislings and traitors from within, the Yoruba need no less inspiration than the one demonstrated by Moremi.

By Bolanle Bolawole

Published in the "On the Lord's Day" column, Sunday Tribune newspaper of Sunday, 26 September, 2021.

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