Religious Intolerance: Lessons from Yoruba ‘Paganism’

January 13, 2024
11 mins read

By Pius Adesanmi
Saturday, October 10, 2009.
If you are Yoruba and you are older than the Facebook or Twitter generation of Nigerians, if you are struggling to cope with expressions such as LOL (laugh out loud) , LMAO (laugh my ass off) OMG (Oh my God), and 9ja (Naija) in emails and texts you receive daily from Nigerians in their teens and twenties, chances are you grew up in a village in Yoruba land where life is suffused in culture, tradition, and a panoply of ancestral rituals and spiritual observances, all instances of man shaping order out of primordial chaos.
Chances are, growing up, you partook – as audience or celebrant– in a very colourful tapestry of ancestral liturgies: Ogun festival, Sango festival, Imole festival, Egungun festival, and, of course, Oro festival, the fear of which is the beginning of wisdom for Yoruba women.
Chances are you enjoyed the atmospherics of these observances, partook of propitiatory offal, sang, and danced to a host of inspirational choruses and processionals welcoming the ancestors and the orishas into the realm of unworthy mortals at each spiritual enactment.
Chances are you remember the sombre baritone of the officiating Ifa priest chanting: “Orisha Yoruba o, e ma ku abo o”; you remember him chanting: “Aji gini, arin gini, l’oruko Orunmila, Orunmila Baba Ifa, Ifa la o pe, Orunmila la o bo”; chances are you remember the solemn chimes of his bell as he intones: kango kango, mo ma gb’ohun agogo, kange kange mo ma gb’ohun orisha o;chances are you remember one of the most famous of these inspirational choruses: the processional canticle of Oro:
Oro ile wa la wa nse o (2x)
Esin kan o pe (oh eh)
Esin kan o pe ka wa ma s’oro
Oro ile wa la wa nse o
It’s been years now and memories flood through the grey mist of time as you remember these hymns. You know that you dare not insult any of the hymns with a translation into English. No European language is deep enough to bear the full weight of these songs without doing irreparable damage to them. After all, the poverty of the English language is what made Wole Soyinka abandon his dream of translating all of D.O Fagunwa’s novels.
The poor Soyinka held a rapid dialogue with his legs after translating only one of them! But you know that the Oro canticle is too crucial to the lesson that the belief system of the Yoruba has to teach contemporary Nigeria to be left untranslated. You know you must attempt to capture the soul and spirit of the hymn, while hoping that the ancestors will not fine you twenty-five cows for this miserable result in English:
Behold Oro! The ritual of our forebears!
Oro hampers no faith
Let no faith hamper Oro
Behold Oro! The ritual of our forebears!
 You probably sang this song throughout your childhood and early adulthood; you got acquainted with new versions of it that were mainstreamed into Yoruba popular culture by the likes of Alhaji Chief Professor-Master General Kollington Ayinla, Alhaji Agba Chief Dr. Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Ambassador Oodua Abass Akande omo Rapala, and so many other fuji musicians; you sang versions of it that were funkified by your kegite “Il y a” while you were a “wokedly carried” undergraduate savouring “holy water” on campus without the knowledge of your parents.
But through all these renderings, not once did you ever pause to examine the song for its philosophical ramifications. Not once did you really listen to what it tells you about the cultural fount from which it sprang. You never analyzed the hymn because you are probably not used to doing a close reading of your culture. You probably never even thought of it as a hymn. Right now, if you are a Christian, you are probably wincing in horror at the “blasphemy” of my calling a “pagan” Oro song a hymn or an inspirational chorus.
If your ecumenical anger allows you to continue reading, consider this powerful line in the hymn: Esin kan o pe k’awa ma s’oro. I have translated what it says and what it leaves unsaid but implied: Oro hampers no faith. Let no faith hamper Oro. Here, we encounter the first indication of the intrinsic humanism of Yoruba spirituality: the valuation of pluralism. We encounter consciousness and validation of the spiritual essence of the Other. Indeed, we are in the presence of the accomodationist ethos of the Yoruba worldview.
For what this Oro canticle hints at and acknowledges is the presence of other faiths in its own spiritual space of actuation. Oro is demonstrating its awareness of the politics of otherness unleashed by the intrusion of two foreign faiths into the Yoruba world. Oro is acknowledging the presence of Christianity and Islam. These two newcomers are the “esin kan” that are being subtly referenced and advised to live and let live and not hamper older forms of spiritual expression. Oro will not bother you for there is room enough in the sky for birds to fly without colliding. Oro is extending an olive branch to one religion that claims to be a religion of peace and another that claims to have been founded by the prince of peace himself.
From their history – or, rather, the history of how their pacific essence has been twisted and bloodied across centuries by ignorant and intolerant adherents – we know that Christianity and Islam are strangers to the cosmopolitan and accomodationist graciousness of this Oro processional.  For no sooner had the two religions been “let in” – a la Stanley Meets Mutesa – than they began to invest in a sanguinary politics of otherness in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
One began to manufacture infidels who must be put to the sword via purificatory jihad and the other, tolerating no alternative paths to spirituality, decreed itself the way, the truth, and the light. The draconian take-no-prisoners philosophy of these two religions could, of course, only eventuate in their total blindness to the accomodationist humanism of Oro.
Because Christianity and Islam insist on spiritual rebirth as the only path to God and Allah, forgetting is a fundamental element of their creed. Forgetting is, in fact, the most significant aspect of their faiths that haughty European and Arab invaders sold to Africans as they scrambled to win “pagan” souls all over the continent.
That newly-minted born again Christian or Moslem must forget his or her former “pagan” and “fetish” self. Where the Christian forgets to forget the old self, Enoch Adeboye and Chris Oyakhilome are on hand to remind him of the importance of forgetting: “for old things have passed away and all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Only this new self, born in Christ or Mohammed and approved by Europe or Saudi Arabia, is worth remembering. Nigerian Christians go a step further. This new creature must be as white as snow in the burning tropical heat of the Lagos-Ibadan expressway where he constitutes a nuisance to public order.
What kind of self did the born again Yoruba Christian or Moslem have to forget in order not to come short of the glory of God or Allah? The cosmopolitan, pacifist, and accomodationist self in that Oro processional hymn is what is forgotten and sacrificed. Centuries of pluralism and communalism went into the cultural construction of that self. That self was raised by a culture that taught it to always see the humanism of the other as an extension of its own humanism. That self was socialized by ancestral sayings and adages that always celebrated difference and privileged pluralism. That self was taught that several roads lead to the market. As that self was being socialized into adulthood, no elder in the village ever told it that there is only one way, truth, and light leading to the market of spiritual efflorescence.
This explains why that self could partake of Oro festival today, felicitate with and share the dog meat of the Ogun worshipper tomorrow, and dine with the adherents of Sango next week. Where this self was a devotee of Osun, it was unthinkable that it would try to convert or kill the worshipper of Ogun.
This accomodationist ethos, in a cultural context where difference is valued and otherness celebrated, is what Christianity and Islam benefited from when they arrived, only to insist that the self rooted in that worldview was pagan and must be forgotten. When this self humanized by and into traditional spiritual democracy is forgotten, the new self that is born into Moslem zealotry can only see an expendable infidel in every Christian. Likewise, the new self that is born into Christian fundamentalism can only see a hell-bound unbeliever in every Moslem. For old things hath passeth away…
Forgetting the old self – which African Traditional Religions insist we must remember – is perhaps the worst damage that Christianity and Islam did to the African psyche and we are paying the price in human lives in Nigeria today. For these two religions repressed the humane, urbane,  cosmopolitan, pluralist, and accomodationist self in the old order and replaced it with a narrow-minded, ignorant, egotistical, proselytizing, and modern Christian or Moslem self that can only scream: my way or the high way!
This partly explains the murderous political Islam that holds sway in northern Nigeria and insists on being lubricated annually with the blood of our people; this partly explains the murderous Christianity in the south-south that needs the blood of children branded as witches to feel cool. Welcome to the Islam of Boko Haram and the Christianity of Helen Ukpabio. Their motto, according to Wole Soyinka: I am right, therefore you are dead! Boko Haram kills people in the name of Islam, Helen Ukpabio murders “witch children” in the name of Christianity because the accomodationist self that could see and value the humanity of the Other in traditional religion has been forgotten. For old things hath passeth away…
Because Oro and other Yoruba forms of spiritual expression spring from an ethos of life and democratic spiritualism that admits of pluralism, otherness, and difference, they were crucial to the survival of Yoruba people in the New World who, unlike their fundamentalist Christian and Moslem cousins in Nigeria, understood right from the bowel of the slave ship that they could not afford to forget the self. They got to Brazil, in Bahia de Salvador, and the white slave master insisted they forgot themselves by converting to Catholicism.
The same thing happened in Cuba. But the slave master did not reckon with the accomodationist and adaptive essence of the religion of these Yoruba slaves. The slaves took whatever they could from Catholicism, blended such with Yoruba religion, and gave the world the religions of Candomblé in Brazil and Santéria in Cuba. By simultaneously enacting Catholic and Yoruba rituals in Candomblé and Santéria, the Yoruba of the New World are screaming esin kan o pe k’awa ma s’oro! In Candomblé and Santéria, the Virgin Mary lives in peace with her neighbor, Yemoja; Ogun does not grumble about the goings and comings of Saint Peter; Jesus Christ does not label Obatala a pagan deity. Candomblé and Santéria are inscriptions of the old self into new things. For old things hath passeth away…
Harmony. Harmony. Harmony. Do the Christian and Moslem fundamentalists of the old Yoruba land in Nigeria know how to listen to these things from their “pagan” cousins in the Americas? Sadly, the Yoruba who know the meaning of Hubert Ogunde’s warning, “Yoruba Ronu”, are few in Nigeria. They are mostly in Brazil, Cuba, and Barbados.
As long as Nigeria is peopled mainly by selves alienated from the accomodationist and pluralistic humanism of their own cultures; as long as these lost selves refuse to listen to what their cultures have to say about the validity of the multiple roads leading to the market of spirituality, Nigeria will never know peace. I have encountered that pious Hausa Moslem who knows nothing about what his pre-Jihad Habe culture had to say about pluralism and tolerance before Othman Dan Fodio arrived on the scene and decided to rid those cultures of pluralistic and accomodationist values which he demonized as mixing Islam with impurities. This Hausa Moslem even got angry that I asked him about pre-Jihad Habe culture, something he considers haram. For old things hath passeth away…
I have encountered that puny Igbo noise maker on the net, whose deranged mind is so twisted that he spends his entire life railing against every non-Moslem Nigerian who rejects his blanket hatred of Islam. He deliberately takes the murderous political Islam of a lunatic fringe in northern Nigeria for the whole religion and impugns Islam in language dripping with such venom and hate as to make Osama Bin Laden’s language sound like a nursery rhyme.
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Islam is one blanket enemy that this undiscriminating fool makes it out to be in his listserv fulminations. What does his Bible tell him? “Ye have heard that it hath been said, thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mathew 5:43-44).
Our friend’s convenient Christianity is blind to this inconvenient Biblical injunction. His Christianity is so skewed by hate that he wastes his educated mind on such brain-dead intellectual quests as trying to determine the exact statistical percentage of Moslems a Christian society needs to accommodate for there to be peace! In all that, our ‘Christian’ friend doesn’t realize how close he is to Nazi Aryanism or Afrikaner puritanism and how far he is from his Igbo culture which advises him to let the eagle and the kite perch. For old things hath passeth away…
 I have encountered that sophisticated and westernized Yoruba who frowns in horror at the mere mention of Oro or Ogun festival. This educated but foolish Yoruba is the first to perorate about “the backwardness” of Yoruba “idol worship”. Combine the lost selves of these three tragic characters in one African nation-space and you get the combustibility of Nigeria.
Am I implying that Christians and Moslems in Nigeria have to jettison their faith in order to recover their lost selves and save Nigeria the spectre of one and the repeated bloodshed? No. After all, I am a practicing Catholic and I have never liked the argument of traditionalists who believe that a Yoruba follower of Enoch Adeboye must literally return to the shrine of Ogun to recover his lost self. The Nigerian traditionalists who push such absolutist positions commit the same error of authoritarianism and intolerance as Christians and Moslems. They forget the fundamental spiritual democracy of the Yoruba worldview which allowed people to elect which deity to serve and make theirs. The Yoruba who elects God or Allah is in line with this spiritual democracy.
But this Christian must know to draw the line if Enoch Adeboye insists that the selves humanized by Yoruba culture are nothing but idolatrous dominions, powers, and principalities that must be routed into oblivion by onward Christian soldiers; that Moslem must know to draw the line if his Imam tells him to go and destroy the “pagan shrine” of Moremi in Offa. Loss of the self is a price that only foolish people pay to buy modernity.
The Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese who today make Europeans and Americans look like boy scouts in the arena of techno-rational modernity did not achieve that feat at the expense of their cultures and selves. It is, in fact, Western man who has had to quickly and wisely upgrade his palate and make it compatible with Sushi, Bi Bim Bop, and General Tso’s chicken in order not to be left behind by progress.
Recovery of the self implies an unconditional acceptance of the fact that everything you need for the accomodationist efflorescence of your humanity is logged in your culture and whatever version of Christianity or Islam you embrace must accept and respect those values, not condemn them.
The humanism and pluralism which our forebears valued and celebrated are not mutually exclusive with Christianity and Islam. Esin kan o pe k’awa ma s’oro espouses an ancestral dictum of tolerance that Nigerian Moslems and Christians need to learn from. Will they ever be sufficiently humble to admit that they have anything to learn from spiritualities that the most obdurately ignorant among them still label paganism? For old things hath passeth away!
Pius Adesanmi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Director, Project on New African Literatures (PONAL), at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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