Fragments of old Yoruba towns thrive outside the European drawn borders of Nigeria, the biggest group being in Bènin Republic. Up until recently, patriotism to the colonial structure blinded the separate groups to each other’s existence. With the exception of Bènin whose proximity ensured relations between the two Yoruba groups never waned, the groups outside Nigeria in Togo and even Ghana didn’t appear to get much acknowledgement from the main Yoruba monarchs. Much to my ( and other concerned Yoruba folks) rancour because often on social media, you find the youths of those communities proudly declaring their Yoruba heritage. Interestingly, during travels around West Africa friends found that though they were unable to converse in each other’s colonial language i.e. French/English, Yoruba came in handy in many situations. These francophone Yorubas, their traditions , history, spirituality is the same as Oyo/Ile-Ife, sometimes even more rigorously followed than some lukewarm urban Yoruba Nigerian communities. That shouldn’t really be surprising because the kingdoms of three Oduduwa descended kings out of the 16 grandchildren – Sabe, Popo, Ketou fall into this category, amongst the other Yoruba groups who migrated out of Yorubaland to escape the “100 years war” of the 17th and 18th centuries.
So it was satisfying to stumble upon this news report today.(caveat! if you’re squeamish , don’t read about the unveiling of the Sango Statue. Skip that paragraph , the rest is fine) . News report below:
Jubilation, as Alaafin ‘resurrects’ Sango in Porto Novo
It was dual celebration in Porto Novo, Republic of Benin recently, as the Alaafin of Oyo; Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III resuscitated the celebration of Sango festival in the city for the first time in 200 years. The city also witnessed the unveiling of a multi-million naira statue for the deity. Taiwo Abiodun reports.
THE crowd went into a frenzy, as it sighted the beaded staff of the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III. Many surged forward to catch a glimpse of the majestic staff, which symbolised the essence of the monarch, acclaimed as the ultimate political power in the whole old Oyo Empire; while some even made efforts to touch it. The women removed their headgears and wrappers, spread them on the ground in obeisance, while some prostrated in awe, shouting Kaaaabiyeeeessssiiiiii oooooo. Both the men and women poured panegyrics, showered praises on the royal father and prayed that he lives long .
It was indeed an expression of the rich African culture and reverence for traditional stools. The occasion was the celebration of this year’s Sango (Yoruba god of thunder) festival in Porto Novo and spectacle at Ifoyin Town market, where the celebration held, was simply electrifying. The people danced with dexterity to the bata music rendered by expert bata drummers from Oyo Alaafin. The Alaafin, was represented by his daughter, Arewa Omo’ba ‘Sade Adeyemi, but the occasion nevertheless attracted about 22 royal fathers from across what used to be the old Oyo Empire, spread across Nigeria and eastern Porto Novo, who had come to witness the celebration.
Omo’ba Adeyemi’s epoch speech
As the Yoruba Cultural Ambassador and Yeye Isese of Yorubaland, Arewa Omo’ba Sade Adeyemi (of Arewa House of Culture), mounted the stage in a blaze of applause. Unique in her multiple cowry shell earrings, head, neck and sandals ensemble, Omo’oba Adeyemi was indeed regal and a cynosure of all eyes.
She wowed all with her sonorous song: “Iro ni won npa, Iseese o le parun , Eke ni won nse, Yoruba ‘o le parun (translated: It is a lie our culture cannot die, It is not true Yoruba cannot be destroyed), which the crowd wasted no time in hijacking. It was as if they had been possessed by the spirit of Sango himself.
Thereafter, she delivered a thought-provoking, historical and educative speech.
She said: ”I have been to Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago; I have been to some cities in America, and West Africa; and I have discovered that the Yoruba culture is well accepted, rich, interesting, honoured and respected. But while the Chinese appreciate their festivals, and the Indians do not joke with their culture and ways of life, we the Yoruba in Africa have allowed foreign religions to almost blindfold us, by discouraging us from observing our tradition. Today I am fulfilled; today I am happy that we are moving forward and our custom and tradition cannot be erased. Our father the Alaafin would be happy today, as he too is celebrating same festival in Oyo. Since my father, the Alaafin ascended his forefather’s throne in 1971, he has never for one day failed to celebrate this Yoruba deity in Oyo town.”
According to the princess, despite the fact that some of the people in Porto Novo now speak French because they were colonised by the French, it gladdened her heart that they have not forgotten their roots. “The last time Sango festival was held here in Porto Novo was about 200 years ago; so we thank the Orisas (deities) for giving us the opportunity to do this today….”
Shortly after her speech, a bata troupe led by Ojelabi Adesina Agberako of Agberako entertained with traditional Yoruba songs and acrobatic display.
And then the atmosphere literally transformed, as ‘Sango’ in his typical frenzy, appeared in his warrior costume, restless, wielding his legendary axe and spitting fire.
A six-footer, Sango’s eyes were blood-shot; his regalia was decorated with dangling cowry shells, which dangled as he pranced menacingly about. He tied a decorated leather band around his forehead, while the gourds tied to his neck dangled freely like a pendulum. His plaited hair and red skirt, typical of the Sango deity, made him look like a woman, but one powerful and possessed.
At a point, the rain threatened, causing the visitors momentary anxiety. In between, the terrified spectators shouted ‘Sango! Oko Oya Oooo!; while he responded by wielding the axe threateningly, as if at his enemies.
One of the visitors, Tunde Onibode, said the sight of Sango, with his axe and balls of fire is one that shouldn’t be witnessed by a child.
Unveiling the Sango statue and museum
After the show of theatrics, a life-size Sango statue was unveiled. The unveiling was done by representatives of the Alaafin, Princess Adeyemi, Prince Adeniyi Siyanbola Oluku – Ewu, Prince Jelili Tella and Prince Lawrence Loye. Seeing their dream come true, the community went wild with ecstasy.
A royal father and President of Foundation of Awo Imule du Benin, Kabiyesi Ayorinde Kolawole said, “I personally erected this statue for our people because they yearned for it. We all believe in this tradition, which has been in existence for a very long time. We need Sango here, to guide our community and help us reduce immoralities, stealing and other crimes.”
The Sango status is located behind the market place with the shrines. Worshippers danced around it and prayed for the entire community, on their knees. A group of worshippers grabbed a live ram and used their bare teeth to slaughter it to the amazement of the uninitiated viewers
According to Princess Arewa Sade, “the story of the legendary fire-spitting Sango has been told many times. He was a very powerful king in Oyo.”
The royal father, Kolawole added that “Whoever swears falsely or commits crime and lies against Sango would have himself to blame. And if such person is killed by Sango, the victim’s family must not touch the corpse, while the victim’s property will be confiscated to Sango the god of thunder.”
How Sango became a deity
According to Princess Arewa Sade Adeyemi, “In the days of old, Sango was a warrior and a powerful king who reigned and ruled in the old Oyo Empire. He became too powerful for the then Alaafin of Oyo, hence he created another community for him to rule over, as two rams could not drink from the same pot.
“Many did not know that the story of Sango was real until now. Sango was a king with powerful powers, but one day he set two of his powerful chiefs, Timi (agba le Olofa Ina) and Gbonka against each other, saying he wanted to know who was more powerful. While Gbonka had the power to sedate or make his enemy sleep off, Timi had the power to conjure fire along with his dangerous and powerful magical arrow that emitted fireworks to kill his enemy. Timi eventually killed and beheaded his enemy, Gbonka at Akesan market, but later discovered that Sango’s plan was to eliminate him. He then went to confront Sango and asked him to vacate his throne or face him in a war. To avoid being disgraced, Sango went to hang himself, while his wives Oya, Osun and Oba transformed into rivers, flowing in different directions. Till date, we have the Oya River, River Osun and Odo Oba in Iwo.
“But when Sango’s followers were taunted that their beloved king cowardly hanged himself, they went after those spreading the ugly news, setting their houses on fire and causing them to retract their statement. They also declared that Oba koso (Sango did not hang).”
The Alaafin must not meet face-to-face
Corroborating the story, Tunde Onibode said ”Sango hanged in annoyance and it was a woman selling bean cake that saw his body dangling in the air, who reported the incidence. Till date he is worshipped as a deity.”
Kabiyesi Kolawole declared unequivocally that the statue was not erected by the government of Benin Republic and that he spent about 20 million CFA (7 million naira) of his personal money to construct the statue. To avoid doubt, he said “I do not spend my money on frivolities and that is why I am able to build this shrine and this Sango statue.”
The museum, which was also opened, featured many effigies of Yoruba deities like Sango, Eegun, Oya, Sonpona, Ere Ibeji, Iyalode, Ogun god of Iron, Yemoja, among others. Kolawole said, “Many come here to find solution to their problems and Olodumare always solves their problems.
Babatunde Onibode, a lover of the Yoruba tradition and culture said he came all the way from Lagos, Nigeria to watch the event. He expressed optimism that the place “would soon become a tourist centre, where foreigners would come visiting. I have travelled to French speaking countries, China and some parts of Kenya and many of these countries use tourism to develop their countries. And that’s why I believe we should encourage the Benin Republic Government.
Prince Lawrence Loye, one of the Alaafin’s representatives said “Let the government turn this museum in Itako to a tourist centre. We should not allow colonial mentality to erode our traditional.”
Prince Siyanbola, on his part, described the occasion as ‘great.’ He said “Yes, today is a memorable day in our lives. We must appreciate the fact that Olodumare loves us all and we must abide by all his principles. It is good to know that the recognition of Sango extends to Republic of Benin.”
The royal fathers present include Baale Sango, Ifonyin, Itakete, Ijagba, Apena Tayese, Iya Agba Pobe, Ketu, Sakete, Iketu, Omube, Onipetesi, Onibuba, Onije, Onisale and Onitowe.
To cap it up, the Yeye Isese said the next festival in Benin Republic will hold in July, and would hopefully be graced by the Alaafin himself in his full entourage.
-Taiwo Abiodun, The Nation Newspaper