Olu Obafemi: Locating a life in history and mythologies

Part 2 of the Interview Series for the Olu Obafemi’s 71st Birthday Conference

Professor Olufemi Obafemi belongs to the outstanding category of Africans whose early life was an admixture of African cultural traditions and Western culture, infused with formal education. They can be said to be the last generation of Nigerians who experienced the beauty of African customs, traditions, and mores combined in some uncontaminated form in one or two locations. Before the cultural deracination of African values began in earnest, especially during the peak of colonialism, a number of rural settlements in the country were immune to the blinding effect of imperial cultural encroachment, which later decomposed the people’s cultural traditions and distorted their orientations. These settlements enjoyed a certain degree of immunity from the insanity of colonization because the imperialists abhorred interior African environments and because of this, they had limited influence in many rural settings. Their engagement with any rural environment was determined by the quantity of raw materials they could extract from the place. This means that the more a people or community was distant from direct imperial power, the safer their cultural traditions were because they would remain original to themselves and not become cultural outcasts, forced by the prevailing manipulations of these external conquerors. Bunu, where Obafemi comes from, is a sub-group of the Yoruba, which means that they share a common linguistic and philosophical ancestry. 

Obafemi enjoyed the beautiful combination of African culture and civilizations because he witnessed some cultural traditions in their older forms. For instance, in his parental background in Okun, there was the annual celebration of indigenous traditions, such as the masquerade festival, where participants treated their audience to the beautiful spectacle of the Yoruba artistic performances in oral and acrobatic displays. Through the celebration of ancestors, the Yoruba pass on their indigenous values and social behavior to younger generations. Contrary to the Europeans’ misconception that these practices were used to display Africans’ unholy traits, worship unseen forces, or conjure spirits for nefarious reasons, the African people have continued to use these cultural platforms more than a non-member or practitioner would ever understand.

For one, the masquerade activities that graced Obafemi’s childhood experience, alongside other Yoruba or Africans of his time, are important parts of the people’s culture where they celebrate their ancestors whom they believe can see them from the realm where they are. The system was to achieve several things, including the validation of their perception about the triadic levels of existence—the unborn, the born, and the dead—and to celebrate their existence as it was the umbilical cord between the past and the present. But beyond this, masquerade celebrations have additional values. They are regarded as conflict resolution agencies in many African societies, mediating between warring factions among family members, communities, or resolving other quandary levels that ferment troubles and bring about chaos in communities. As such, young people who witness these events are tutored about their impending roles as members of society and their expected contributions towards its development.

The African societies are a site of numerous socio-cultural activities where different events bring interrelated functions. Cultural osmosis takes place during these events, and as a result, the people extend the lifespan of their cultural traditions to future generations. Aside from the social developmental value that these activities represented in Obafemi’s childhood, they provide enough entertainment to ease public tension. The understanding that humans always absorb pressure from their desire to find a means of survival allows for the collective detoxification of these burdens, part of which can be achieved when the annual masquerade celebrations take place. The entertainment segment always featured the cultural dance, rites procession, and wrestling, among other things. Many ideas are shared and ultimately evolved to the point where society will integrate those that are applicable to them and discard those that are morally unappealing. Anyone familiar with Obafemi’s level of brilliance would understand the connection between him and his organic identity.

Again, Obafemi’s childhood experience will help us understand the gendered cultural underpinnings of the Yoruba, as well as many other African societies. Like many Africans, he came from a gendered root because his people recognize the significant place of women in society. Better than the ways children relate with their paternal siblings, the Yoruba have a socio-cultural arrangement that emphasizes women’s roles, and as a result, various elements of “matrilineal” connections. This structure reveals a great deal about the people. Despite the widespread misconception that Africans are solely patriarchal, a number of anthropologists believe that the odds are stacked against women in the social makeup. This is not only contrived, but it also shows that there is an information or knowledge deficit about these civilizations. Women have their roles in the social arrangement in the same way that men have theirs, and they are never considered as people below the hierarchy of men, or anyone for that matter. In the Yoruba society, for example, there are few social positions in which males are expected to function while females are excluded. Every trade and many endeavors require the registration of both genders in equal measure. Being treated to this kind of ideological configuration helps to facilitate a knowledge of gender equality. Sadly, this situation is not the same at the ascension of colonial structures.  

However, Obafemi’s childhood experience will be grossly underrepresented if the colonial or European influence is not discussed. Fortunately for him, he belongs to a generation that accessed Western education when it was both poisonous and liberating. In the former case, Western education was toxic for African children because it challenged their existential values and ridiculed their inherited epistemology. This was done by subtly promoting the narrative that the African cultural infrastructure was weak and inappropriate for the development of a worthwhile civilization. The African children, even while in the African classroom, got the impression that their indigenous education system was inferior and dangerous to their own sanity. In essence, the classroom became an abattoir of identity lynching for the pupils where their cultural existence was sacrificed in exchange for Western epistemology. The reincarnation of their indigenous structures was not possible until certain courageous African intellectuals began to challenge the established misinformation so that the future of Africans would not be entirely left for the Europeans to determine. Obafemi went to a missionary school for his primary school education. However, since he was well-versed in African cultural traditions, he was able to strike a balance. 

Proximity brings about the simulation of ideas, and from Obafemi’s extensive experience, it is undeniable that he has been a product of multiple cultures. He was born in Nigeria, one of the modern-day monuments of cultural pluralism, and was raised in borderline areas where two or more civilizations exchange cultures very closely and easily. Okun, his ancestral lineage, shares geographical boundaries with different cultures, making cultural osmosis very easy for him. Bordered by the Hausa, Igala and Ebira people, it is understandable that ideas would flow in the head of this intellectual figure. In the early period of Nigeria’s independence, the regional governments embarked on various projects, including the sponsorship of an educational system that would promote excellence. Obafemi had his secondary education in a different cultural setting under the northern regional government. Although he was getting the necessary knowledge in these schools, he was simultaneously absorbing the cultural information that would eventually help him navigate his journey as a Nigerian and a Yoruba icon with a stake in their eco-political engagement. Exposure to another culture and a good understanding of their traditions and behavior would prevent others from making bogus assumptions about them. 

After loading his head with assortments of cultural and social history, Obafemi continued his education in England at the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds, where he obtained an English education to complement his background knowledge. As an undergraduate student, he had been groomed as a journalism expert too, and there was no way he would not experience immediate transformation with additional knowledge of English, which he went to pursue in the English society. Expectedly, Obafemi did extraordinarily well in his studies both at home and abroad, which prepared him for the excellence he was later associated with in his career. Upon graduation, Obafemi’s academic adroitness was put to a practical test. His knowledge acquisition in journalism was immediately set in motion when he was employed as a journalist in the information sharing industry. In the Ministry of Information, he worked exceptionally and built a robust ethical structure that continued to dictate his trajectory even when he considered pursuing a career as an academic where he would eventually build a greater image for himself. After nearly five decades of service, he influenced the Nigerian educational system, and even after retirement, he became more valuable in the public sector where he was engaged in different capacities.

It is barely impossible that anyone with a postcolonial civilization’s identity would not be affected by a conflict of confluence. Despite having spent a significant number of years in post-independence, enough to have created a sense of nationhood and oneness, many postcolonial political creations still carry the fractures of division sustained by their immersion in contemporary separatist politics. The vestiges of this colonial implantation persist because different groups have not progressed from their clannish thinking to modernized orientation where the boundaries erected by cultural philosophy and geographical differences are particularly expected to have been submerged. Despite having access to a globalized environment, the framework for the restoration of oneness has been perpetually challenged because people have not demonstrated satisfactory or quality intellection to establish an identity that would extend beyond the sentiments of ethnicity and cultural absolutism. Obafemi understands that this particular situation impedes the country’s potential and the ability of its diverse people to reach their full potential. The country is dragged back into antiquity because subgroup or sub-regional patriotism is prioritized beyond national identity, which comes at the detriment of true nation-building. Humans are different, and this is not a new development in human nature. It is more evident now because of the forceful influence of globalization and westernization, which places on everyone the responsibility of reconsidering things.

Scholars such as Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and even Frantz Fanon speak negatively of the impact of colonization and its destructive infrastructure because of the complex effects of identity politics in a postcolonial environment. Children’s psychological domain is developed by the philosophical constructs used in their immediate environment. Moreover, because their minds are susceptible to manipulation when they have the wrong impression about an environment, it goes on to determine their social behavior, not only to the society from which they were developed, but also to the people with whom they will share their future relationships. For instance, Said talked about the unhomeliness of the postcolonial African child whose mind and psychology are divided between two diametrically opposing civilizations. By being “unhomed,” according to him, the ex-colonial candidate oscillates between the indigenous community’s cultural traditions and that of the European world that has been imposed. In fact, it was more sardonic with the introduction of the internet as a means of globalization. There is little opportunity for the ex-colonies to continue with their cultural systems because they have not only been carefully displaced by European systems, but they also face critical challenges in reclaiming “traditional” African culture. As a result of this condition, they have struggled with identity issues, and the problem of unity persists. 

In essence, individuals who fall within the minority circle in Nigeria face a perpetual problem of segregation and subversion. They are vulnerable because getting the appropriate political attention in the country remains a constant challenge. Apart from this, there is the possibility that they are reaping unsatisfactory dividends of democracy due to ethnic politics. Meanwhile, intellectuals like Obafemi have ideological reservations about the state of affairs in the country. Perhaps he has been exposed to this inequity at several levels because he is a member of the Okun community. Their situation is more complicated because the postcolonial Nigerian society mobilizes political power to advance a parochial agenda. For example, categorizing Okun, which culturally and ideologically belongs to the Yoruba, among the northern bloc, opens them to nebulous conditions. When the issue of political power surfaces, they are considered as northerners, and because of this grouping, they use their political stake to influence the concession of power to the said bloc. However, they are marginalized themselves for obvious reasons. All of these are factors that contributed to Obafemi’s position in the messiness of politics. He understands that the politics of difference is mobilized by the elite for their parochial objectives, allowing them to remain in power even when they have no credible credentials to operate at these political levels. In the true sense of it, therefore, it cannot be contended that he belongs to the class of people, or Nigerian, born and raised in conflict-ridden environments.

Regardless of their conflict-prone experience, people can make something out of every situation based on some factors. One, an individual who is determined to become very great, will always consider pressure and widening challenges as the necessary instrument needed for the crystallization of their life agenda and goals to make maximum impact in their lives. Two, rather than being encouraged or challenged by daring situations, some people are usually downcast and forlorn, allowing the pressure of the situations to overwhelm and submerge them beyond repair. Three, there are those caught between these horrible conditions, and who, because of their indecision, make no meaningful addition to themselves, and neither would be considered backward. It would not be a mistake to say that Obafemi belongs to the first category. In the process of being affected by a polarized environment, he used the experience as a motivation to build a lasting legacy for himself by attaining a level of academic excellence that would project him beyond the confines of his cultural geography. 

There is no better way to demonstrate how important Obafemi’s sociological background was to his eventual intellectual growth than to provide evidence of his involvement and success in the different engagements he found himself. He is an actor, a playwright and a theatre director in part because he was involved in itinerant school acting during his formative years. As a student, he was equally outspoken, and all of these reflected very well in his life in the later stages of his journey. He has been using his intellectual property as a tool to negotiate political justice, and an environment where equity is allowed and fairness is possible. Participating in these preliminary verbal debates and polemics laid the groundwork for his future journalistic adventures. Life has thrown a sizeable number of challenges at him in the form of growing up in an environment where pluralism is given. Beyond this, he was shown a cultural economy that enriched his moral and sociological experience while also guiding him in his engagements. He has worked as an administrator in different capacities, has successfully organized a handful of academic programs, and created a patronage network that continues to propel him beyond expectations.

As previously stated, his access to cultural tradition gave him the opportunity to create a culture that would later transform him into someone of international relevance. It appears that the cultural pluralism of the environment did not become an albatross to his career and social development. Instead, they became a pool of cultural possession from where lies different possibilities for him. During an engagement with him, he fantasized about the masquerade celebrations during his childhood, which introduced to him the heart of the Yoruba culture. He confessed that these cultural activities became the creative inspiration behind his future literary and artistic productions.

In essence, although Obafemi has a pleasing physical stature, it is important to emphasize that it is dwarfed by his intellectual capacity and talent. The multicultural society from where he grew up influenced his future creativity, as the icons of his cultural traditions are the muse and indexes of literary engagements. He has successfully transformed what was considered an inhibiting challenge into a motivating factor in developing a worthwhile academic and moral ideology. 


Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, The University of Texas at Austin


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