Wednesday 11 May 2022

Wole Soyinka on Yoruba Religion - A conversation with Ulli Beier… (snippet 4)

Beier: There is a whole body of prejudices - which have their roots in the ignorant or  malicious misinterpretations of missionaries - and which still persist in the minds of many Nigerians.

A typical one is the accusation that the Egungun try to "deceive" women and  children, by pretending that they are spirits. Whereas of course every child knows that there is a man in the mask ...

Soyinka: Absolutely! I did.

Beier: Everybody knows that the mask is carried by a dancer who is specially trained for that task - but at the height of the dance he becomes the ancestor. That is a totally different matter. These "wicked" man who allegedly try to intimidate women -can’t people see that during the Egungun festival they are in fact blessing women and that those who pray for children dance behind them?

Soyinka: And again, if you take the communion here is a thing that happens every Sunday, sometimes twice a week. In which the officiating priest actually gives you a wafer and says "This is the flesh of Christ" and he gives you a drop of wine and says "This is the blood of Christ" ...

Beier: Another defamation of Yoruba religion is the notion that is a form of exploitation of the people. But surely it is much less so than Christianity! Take a babalawo, for instance: When you consult a babalawo, you put down threepence. A token fee! There is no money involved in divination. Have you ever seen a rich babalawo?

Soyinka: (laughs)

Beier: A traditional babalawo was a poor man. He was not even interested in being rich. In fact the whole society did not even know wealth in our modern sense. What kind of possessions could you own, that others didn’t have? Another Agbada? 

Everybody had enough yams to eat. Everybody lived in a spacious compound that  would accommodate him, his wives and his children. Everybody had enough clothes to wear ... everybody had access to land. What else could you want? There was nothing to buy.

The grand old Olorisha priests I knew in the fifties: the Ajagemo of Ede, the Akodu of Ilobu ... they were poor people, in spite of their influence. There was no such thing as a fat priest. Whereas now some of these new Churches really do exploit their congregation. Only a week ago one of these self styled "prophets" went to see a friend of mine and told her: "I had a vision. The child you are going to give birth to will be born dead, and you too will die in childbirth. The only way you can survive is to fast for three days without water and to give money to the Church!" Now here is not only exploitation but also blackmail!

Soyinka: It is happening all the time. All the time. This whole spate of prophesying, this competitive mortification of people is nothing but an attempt to bring powerful and wealthy people under the control of the priest. Even ordinary individuals are not exempted. They have succeeded in some cases. Oh yes. They rush to them and say: You must do this and that. And sometimes when people take no notice of them, their relatives will! There was a relation of mine, he got so frightened when one of these prophets predicted a likely death for me, that he ran to him and asked him what to do. And I said to him: I will curse you, if you go again to that church. I will follow you there and break up that ceremony. So they do succeed on so many levels and it has become competitive.


Isokan Yoruba Magazine Volume III No. III (1997)

'Wole Soyinka on Yoruba Religion: a conversation with Ulli Beier'.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post! Thanks for sharing the knowledge and keep up the good work.


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