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Making History, Creating Gender: Some Methodological and Interpretive Questions in the Writing of Oyo Oral Traditions1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014


Of all the things that were produced in Africa during the colonial period—cash crops, states, and tribes, to name a few—history and tradition are the least acknowledged as products of the colonial situation. This does not mean that Africans did not have history before the white man came. Rather, I am making distinctions among the following: firstly, history as lived experience; secondly, history as a record of lived experience which is coded in the oral traditions; and finally, the recently constituted written history. This last category is very much tied up with European engagements with Africa and the introduction of “history writing” as a discipline and as profession. But even then, it is important to acknowledge the fact that African history, including oral traditions, were recorded as a result of the European assault.

This underscores the fact that ideological interests were at work in the making of African history, as is true of all history. As such, tradition is constantly being reinvented to reflect these interests. A. I. Asiwaju, for example, in a paper examining the political motivations and manipulations of oral tradition in the constitution of Obaship in different parts of Yorubaland during the colonial period writes: “in the era of European rule, particularly British rule, when government often based most of its decisions over local claims upon the evidence of traditional history, a good proportion of the data tended to be manipulated deliberately.” This process of manipulation produced examples of what he wittily refers to as “nouveaux rois of Yorubaland.”

Research Article
Copyright © African Studies Association 1998

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One of the earliest scholarly engagements with African oral tradition as history is Saburi Biobaku, “The Problem of Traditional History with Special Reference To Yoruba Traditions,” JHSN (December 1956). The present paper is based on a chapter in my The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis, 1997).


2 Asiwaju, A. I., “Political Motivation and Oral Historical Traditions in Africa: The Case of Yoruba Crowns,” Africa, 46 (1976), 113–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Ibid., 116.

4 Awe, Bolanle, “Introduction” in Nigerian Women in Historical Perspective (Lagos, 1992), 7.Google Scholar

5 See Oyewumi, Oyeronke, “Inventing Gender: Questioning Gender in Precolonial Yorubaland” in Problems in African History, ed. Collins, Robert (New York, 1993).Google Scholar

6 For aspects of his biography see Ajayi, J. F. Ade, “Samuel Johnson: Historian of the Yoruba,” Nigeria Magazine (1964) 141–46Google Scholar, and Zachernuk, Phillip, “Samuel Johnson and the Victorian Image of the Yoruba,” in Falola, Toyin, ed., Pioneer, Patriot, and Patriarch: Samuel Johnson and the Yoruba People (Madison, 1993), 3346.Google Scholar

7 Fadipe, N.A., The Sociology of the Yoruba (Ibadan, 1970), 63.Google Scholar

8 I hesitate to call it a problem because it is not a Yoruba-generated one. Rather, it is an issue that has arisen with the imposition of western values and practices which are imbued with gender, which is an ontological category in their thinking and social arrangements.

9 The Saro also called Akus and recaptives were liberated slaves who had been settled in the British colony of Sierra Leone. Many originated in Yorubaland, sold during the Atlantic slave trade, but had been liberated by the British squadron on the West African coast during the abolitionist phase of British expansion. In 1843, after being Westernized and Christianized, they started returning to Yorubaland and were to play a decisive role in the penetration of Western values and goods among the Yoruba. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had become an elite group in Lagos and Abeokuta. They represented the internal factor that facilitated the colonization of Yorubaland. They also brought literacy and Western schooling to Nigeria. Bishop Ajayi Crowther—the first African Anglican Bishop in Africa—was one of them and he was instrumental in reducing Yoruba into writing. Indeed, the varied role of individual Saro and the collective in the history of modern Nigeria cannot be overstated. See Kopytoff, Jean, Preface to Modern Nigeria: Sierra Leonians in Yorubaland, 1830-1890 (Madison, 1965)Google Scholar, for a history.

10 Law, Robin, “How Truly Traditional Is Our Traditional History? The Case of Samuel Johnson and the Recording of Yoruba Oral Trdition,” HA 11 (1984), 197.Google Scholar

11 For a discussion of feedback in other African oral traditions see Henige, David, “The Problem of Feedback in Oral Tradition: Four Examples From the Fante Coastlands.” JAH 14 (1973): 223–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

For a discussion of Johnson and feedback in Yoruba history see Agiri, B. A., “Early Oyo History Reconsidered,” in HA 2 (1975).Google Scholar

12 Ibid., 1.

13 Ibid.

14 Smith, R., Alafin in Exile: a Study of the Igboho Period in Oyo History,” JAH 6 (1965), 5777CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Law, How Truly Traditional,”

15 “Law, How Truly Traditional,” 207-11.

16 Johnson, Samuel, The History of the Yorubas (London, 1921), 176.Google Scholar

17 Ibid., xxxvii.

18 Smith, , Alafin in Exile, 68.Google Scholar

19 Johnson, , History of the Yorubas, viiGoogle Scholar, with emphasis added.

20 Law, , “How Truly Traditional,” 199.Google Scholar

21 Curiously, he does not mention the female akunyungba (royal bards) or the ayaba (royal consorts) as one of his sources.

22 See Henige, “Feedback,” and Law, “How Truly Traditional,” for some of these disjunctures.

23 Law, , “How Truly Traditional,” 213.Google Scholar

24 I want to thank Olufemi Taiwo for his generous contribution in our discussions on this o this issue.

25 See Ife: The Cradle of a Race, ed. Akinjogbin, I.A. (Port Harcourt, 1992).Google Scholar

26 There are no known references to Oyo written records earlier than the seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries. Invariably, the earliest eyewitness accounts are European accounts.

27 Law, , “How Truly Traditional,” 213.Google Scholar

28 Atanda, J.A., The New Oyo Empire, (London, 1973).Google Scholar

29 Law, “How Truly Traditional?”

30 Agiri, , “Early Oyo History,” 5.Google Scholar

31 Johnson, , History, 41.Google Scholar

32 Agiri, , “Early Oyo History,” 5.Google Scholar

33 Smith, , Alafin in Exile, 64.Google Scholar

34 Johnson, , History, 47Google Scholar

35 Ibid., 41.

36 Ibid.

37 Atanda, J. A., New Oyo Empire, 210Google Scholar; my translation.

38 Johnson, , History, 155.Google Scholar

39 Agiri, B. A., “Early Oyo History,” 9.Google Scholar Agiri argues that Sango may not have been a real individual, but that myths about him developed to explain the period of Nupe control over Oyo.

40 Johnson, , History, 47.Google Scholar

41 There is also another meaning that female royal offspring do not make stable marriage partners.

42 Johnson, , History, 86.Google Scholar

43 Ibid, XX.

44 Ibid., 173, with emphasis added.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., 156.

47 Ibid., 155. There is indeed some general confusion in the literature as to the lineage identity (are they wives or daughters?) of the female officials in the Oyo political hierarchy. The confusion is compounded by the fact that in English, they are called “queens” or “ladies of the palace.” Smith, “Alafin in Exile,” alludes to the confusion.

48 Johnson, , History, 6367.Google Scholar See also S. O. Babayemi, “The Role of Women in Politics and Religion in Oyo,” paper presented at the Seminar on Women's Studies: The State of the Arts Now in Nigeria, Institute of African Studies, Unioversity of Ibadan, November, 1987.

49 Smith, , The Alafin in Exile, 32Google Scholar, with emphasis added.

50 What might need further analysis though is the fact that the word baale seems to derive from baba, which means “father.”

51 Transcripts of recorded interview conducted in Ogbomoso on 3 and 26 March 1996. I also have in my possession an autobiographical pamphlet given to me by the Baale herself, Iwe Itan Kukuru Nipa Ilu Maya (Ayetoro).

52 Law, , “How Truly Traditional,” 210.Google Scholar

53 Smith, “Alafin in Exile,” 75n52.

54 Peel, J.D.Y., “Kings, Titles, and Quarters: a Conjectural History of Ilesa,” HA 6 (1979), 126.Google Scholar

55 Babayemi, S. O., “The Rise and Fall of Oyo” (PhD., University of Birmingham, 1990).Google Scholar

56 Peel, , “Kings, Titles, and Quarters,” 129.Google Scholar

57 Peel, , “The Pasyt in the Ijesha Present,” Man ns 19 (1984), 113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

58 Johnson, , History, 65.Google Scholar

59 Temu, A. and Swai, B., Historians and Africanist History: A Critique (London, 1981).Google Scholar

60 Farias, P. F. de Moraes, History and Consolation: Royal Yoruba Bards Comment on Their Craft,” HA 19 (1992), 263–97Google Scholar

61 Ibid., 275.

62 Ibid., 270, with emphasis added.

63 Ibid., 275.

64 In the Yoruba Bible the same expression is used to indicate that Jesus is the only son of God. The implications of the non-gender specificity of the Yoruba term omo to refer to Jesus has not been studied.

65 Awe, Bolanle, “Praise Poetry as Historical Data: The Example of Yoruba Oriki,” in Africa 44 (1974), 332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

66 Ibid., 348.

67 Ibid.

68 Barber, Karin, “Documenting Social and Ideological Change Through Yoruba Personal Oriki: A Stylistic Analysis,” JHSN 10/4Google Scholar

69 Babalola, Adeboye, Awon Oriki Borokinni (Ibadan,).Google Scholar

70 Babayemi, S. O., Content Analysis of Oriki Orile [undated] 168–69.Google Scholar

71 Awe, , “Praise Poetry,” 340–46.Google Scholar

72 Barber, , I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town (Edinburgh, 1991), 198.Google Scholar

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., 259.

75 Babalola, , Aimm, 79.Google Scholar

76 Ibid.

77 Awe, Bolanle, “The Iyalode in the Traditional Yoruba Political System;” in Schlegel, Alice, ed., Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View (New York, 1977).Google Scholar

78 Johnson, , History, 66.Google Scholar

79 As it happens, Oba Oyewumi is my father; I have had numerous conversations on all these questions with him.

80 For the rise and influence of Ibadan see Awe, Bolanle, “The Rise of Ibadan as a Yoruba Power” (D. Phil., Oxford University, 1964).Google Scholar

81 Interview conducted at her residence in Ogbomoso on 7 July 1996. Transcript is available.

82 Awe, , “Iyalode,” 157Google Scholar

83 Ibid., 147-48.

84 Ibid., 153.

85 Yemitan, Oladipo, Madame Tinubu: Merchant and King-Maker (Ibadan, 1987), 4748.Google Scholar

86 Awe, , “Iyalode,” 152Google Scholar

87 Oweyumi, , Invention of Women, 76.Google Scholar

88 See for example, the discussion in J. A. Atanda, New Oyo Empire.

89 Awe, , “Iyalode,” 151.Google Scholar

90 Drewal, M. T. and Drewal, H. J., “Composing Time and Space in Yoruba Art,” Word and Image 3 (1987), 225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

91 Stevens, Philips, Stone Images of Esie, Nigeria (New York, 1978.Google Scholar

92 Ibid., 22.

93 Ibid., 65.

94 Oyewumi, “Inventing Gender.”

95 Ibid.

96 Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London, 1972), 4564.Google Scholar

97 Adepegba, C.O., Yoruba Metal sculpture (Ibadan, 1991), 31Google Scholar

98 Stevens, , Stone Images, 65.Google Scholar

99 Pemberton, John, “The Oyo Empire” in Drewal, Henry, Pemberton, John, Abiodun, Rowland, and Wardwell, Allen, Yoruba: Nine Centuries of Art and Thought, (New York, 1989), 78Google Scholar, with emphasis added.

100 Ibid., 82.

101 Johnson, , History, 65.Google Scholar

102 Pemberton, , “Oyo Empire,” 162.Google Scholar

103 Ibid.

104 S.O. Babayemi, “The Role of Women in Politics and Religion in Oyo.”

105 Matory, James, “Sex and the Empire That Is No More” (Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1992), 6.Google Scholar

106 Ibid., 538.

107 Interview conducted in his residence in Ogbomoso on 16 March 1996. Transcripts of recorded interviw available.

108 See Abiodun, Rowland, “Verbal and Visual Metaphors: Mythical Allusions in Yoruba Ritualistic Art of Ori,” Word and Image 3 (1987), 257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

109 Agiri, B. A. and Ogboni, TAmong the Oyo-Yoruba,” Lagos Notes and Records 3 (1972), 53.Google Scholar

110 Morton-Williams, Peter, “An Outline of the Cosmology and Cult Organization of the Oyo Yoruba,” Africa 34 (1964), 243–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

111 Atanda, J. A., “The Yoruba Ogboni Cult: Did It Exist in Old Oyo?JHSN 6/4 (1973), 371.Google Scholar

112 Asiwaju, , “Political Motivation,” 113.Google Scholar It should be recalled that, according to Johnson, the polity of Ketu was one of the original polities founded by Oduduwa's children. In the case of Ketu, however, it is said that because this child of Oduduwa was female, the deed of founding passed to her son.

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