Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi of Oyotunji African Village, Southern Carolina, United States of America in this interview with Adeola Balogun and Ademola Olonilua speaks about his community
Oyotunji African village was founded in the United States by your father. Did he tell you why he chose the Yoruba culture?
My father decided to choose the Yoruba culture for several reasons and various things led us to the Yoruba culture. The first thing that led my father to the Yoruba culture was the ancestors. He did not choose the Yoruba culture, rather the culture chose him. He was a young man who was always curious about the gods and the black people's culture because there were no educational facilities in the United States that could help him understand who he was as a descendant of Africa but he knew that the Dutch, Jews and Europeans had a culture. So he knew that the black people also had a culture somewhere. They had ancient kingdoms somewhere but no one could tell him where they were. It was not until he moved to New York in 1945 that he met an Asian man who introduced him to voodoo or dambala which was a deity in Benin Republic. Baba was very curious and as it stands, the Yoruba culture survived the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and so when African people were being stolen from their continent, many of them swallowed their religious implements. An Ifa priest named Adeshina swallowed his Odu Ifa and when he got to Cuba, he retrieved it and continued to practise his Ifa.
For one to create a community, you need money, how is Oyotunji funded?
Our forefathers and mothers were the ones who pulled their small resources together to get the land and the rest was up to Eledumare (God). We had the men in the village who were the builders and the women in the village were the protectors of the village and the children were the future. There was no funding from the government, Africa or Europe. We utilised our African culture to create income, so Oyotunji became a tourist destination, the first black African tourist destination in North American continent. People come from all over the world to learn about Oyotunji's culture and they pay a fee to enter the community and toll fee to witness all our festivals. When you get in for the festival, you have people selling things like sokoto (native trousers), danshiki, beads, fila (caps) and different kinds of clothes; this helps to drive our economy. We have basically survived all these years from tourism and the Yoruba culture.
Language is very essential for any culture to survive. Yoruba is a foreign language in America, how were the people of Oyotunji able to learn how to speak Yoruba? Did the kingdom have to bring people from this part of Africa to teach them the language?
No, it did not happen that way. There was a Chief, Orisamola Awolowo who was a high priest in Oyotunji. He was the one who advised that if we were to establish a community, the most important thing was to learn the language because it would give a better understanding of the culture. You would find out that the Yoruba language is as intricate and profound as the culture itself. It is as beautiful as the dress you wear. During the early days in Oyotunji, they taught the Yoruba language in schools. That chief taught himself the language by reading books, he learnt the alphabets, intonation, vowels and he started to put words together. Then the language was instituted in primary schools; so every Monday we would have Yoruba language class. That is how it grew in North America. Now you have people all over North America joining the Yoruba culture and religion. They know that they have to speak the Yoruba language to talk to the Orisa (diety). They have to speak the Yoruba language to communicate with the ancestors. As we know, the Yoruba language is difficult for the American tongue so black American people are learning it well. Throughout America, there is a movement of young people who are ready to learn how to speak Yoruba because they want to learn how to communicate with the spirits. Some young people are very fluent and better than I am in speaking the language in my kingdom. They chant Ijala, Ifa, and they do it very well. We also created a creole of Yoruba language, we have our own way of speaking Yoruba that you might not understand. You would hear the words but the actual structure would confuse you.
You also dress like the typical Yoruba in Oyotunji, how do you get the clothes and the designers? Do you import them?
Not exactly; it was organic, you have to know that everything in Oyotunji is organic. It all started with African-Americans doing their thing. Based on our investigation, there was no Yoruba clothing in North America, so my father introduced the Yoruba danshiki to North-America in the late 50s. Subsequently today, it has become a popular item of clothing. The story goes that there was a Nigerian man that came to one of their festivals that they were having in New York and he was wearing an agbada and my father had never seen anything like that before being an American. Everybody wanted to investigate him so they would walk around him, they made him hold it out and my father did the measurement because he was an artist and his wife, Olubunmi Adesoji Akinsegun, was the first woman to recreate the danshiki in New York.
In New York, my father practised polygamy so he had his wives and made all of them manufacture danshiki. They opened a store and began to sell it in Manhattan. People did not buy them because it was weird and too crazy. The American people said that they were wearing sheets because they were very ignorant but it was not their fault because they did not know what they were seeing so Baba would have parades in Harlem down the streets, 1005 street, with drummers and singers holding banners and they would all adorn themselves in the Yoruba clothes. However, they had to give the first round of danshikis away because people would not buy them. They wanted to show people how beautiful the clothes were. When African-American people began to wear Yoruba clothing, it changed their spirit and they felt royal. Today at Oyotunji, you have people who can manufacture Yoruba clothes. We can buy the fabrics and there are people who can sow them. Today we have a huge market for the clothes. My father told all the black Americans that if they were going to practise their tradition, they had to take it to another level; they had to be more cultural and historically correct than any other tradition in the diaspora. In Cuba and Brazil, they did not have the Yoruba clothing, they had a different style of dressing. In North America, my father said that you had to have a Yoruba name, dress like a Yoruba man and follow the African culture. Oyotunji has spread the Yoruba culture throughout North America in such a profound way that many people are becoming a part of the culture but they do not know why. A lot of them do not know Oyotunji, they don't know that we started it but they know that their parents wear Yoruba clothes.
We noticed you have tribal marks, how did that come about?
The tribal marks began in Oyotunji in 1975. My father travelled to Abeokuta in 1974 and he met with the Alake. When they consulted the Ifa, he was told that when he got back to Oyotunji, he must put the marks of his ancestors on his people so that they could be recognised by the ancestors. We have all sorts of people in America but with the tribal marks, the ancestors can recognise them, so they say. Each person in Oyotunji began to receive tribal marks. I received my ila oju (tribal marks) when I was eight days old, just before the isomo loruko (naming ceremony). Men and women receive them. However, today it is not mandatory as it was. Now it is up to the parents and children if they want to receive them. Today many adults are coming to us to receive tribal marks but I tell them we don't do it when you are old because it is very painful. As a child, it is just like circumcision. It is the child's first cut in the community. When you bleed, they put ewe (leaves) and ase (traditional powder). When those things are put, they make you powerful. We choose to bear marks similar to the Oyo people because my father was so mystified with the Oyo Empire. I don't think there has been an empire like that since and that is why he named the village after Oyo. As we know, Oyo was the political capital of the Yoruba people while Ile Ife is the spiritual capital of the Yoruba race as it is said in the history of the Yoruba people. Many people refute this today but we know it is true. Everyone had the Oyo mark but you also had your family mark to distinguish you from everybody else. Throughout north America, people know that if they see the marks, you are from Oyotunji. It is now becoming fashionable and people want the marks for fashion but I know that it is a painful process for adults. But many of them suffer the pain just to have the marking of their ancestors.
While you say it is fashionable in America, Nigeria is about to pass a law to abolish it. What do you think about this?
What I have to say is that we have to uphold our traditions ourselves. Who said it was not fashionable? Who said it is ugly? Who said it is terrible? Foreigners. This has been going on for a very long time until the foreigners came and they said we should stop it. We do not go to anyone's land to tell them what not to do. The African people do not have a history of that. We did not go to India or China to tell them what to do. So when we understand why some things are the way they are, then we can change them. The reason they say that is because of colonialism.
Does your kingdom have a close association with top monarchs in Nigeria like the Ooni of Ife, Alaafin of Oyo and Olubadan of Ibadan?
We have a good interaction with Obas in the Yorubaland and that began in 1981. You should know that Oyotunji was self-made and we did not have any Oba to back us financially. The Oba of Oyotunji was not always the Oba. My family history says that they were of the royal family before slavery. They were of the royal family of the Yoruba culture in Benin, The Dahomey kingdom. Our great, great ancestor was King Tegbesu. Some of our descendants were stolen and taken to America but my father always knew that he had a royal blood. It was not until 1972 when the people of Oyotunji after 20 years of Yoruba culture development realised that my father should become a king. My father did not make himself a king, he was just the builder and constructor. One day, the people woke up and decided to make him king. They made a crown and he told me that one day he was in his bed when he heard fire crackers but he thought they were gun shots, so he sprang up and reached for his rifle because he thought it was an invasion of the village by the Oyinbos. When he went outside, he saw that it was the village people that were there and when they saw him, they began to drum and sing. They told him to sit down and said that from that day, there was no more work for him and he would become the ruler of the village.
My father visited Ile Ife on November 16, 1981 for his first Orisa conference. Meanwhile, Oyotunji had been in existence for about 11 years while the Yoruba culture movement had been in existence in North-America for about 20 years. Baba came to the conference and the Oba Sijuwade was there. On a projector, my father started to show pictures and slides of what they were doing back in Oyotunji and the great king, Oba Sijuwade, saw that. Being an architect himself, after the conference which was held at the University of Ife, he invited all those that attended the conference to the Ile Oduduwa palace in Ile Ife where he hosted them. During the reception, he surprised my father by singling him out and he told his kingmakers to take him to the back. My father said that they sacrificed a goat to the Ada oba akogun (the sword), and he consecrated it by saying that from that day forward, he would be the king of all the Yoruba in North America. This was the second coronation for my father. He then received his official status from the Source of the Yoruba kingdom. Baba came back to the United States with that and began to expand the royal family, the crowns, royal insignia, and the Yoruba culture but this time with the spiritual backing of the source. In 2005, we were crowned Oba of Oyotunji by the people of North America and we travelled to the Ile Oduduwa palace in Ile Ife where we were crowned officially by the source, by the late Oba Sijuade. We also travelled to Benin to my late father's homeland, there we were crowned once again by the people of the town of Ofiaketou, it is a town between the border of Nigeria and Republic of Benin. We had three coronation ceremonies and we were elated. Since then, we have been creating a cordial relationship with various Obas of Osun State to show them what we are doing. We never ask for anything, we just want to show them what we are doing. Now we are back in the Yorubaland to drum support for Oyotunji so that we can take it to the next level. We want to expand our relationships with the Obas because many people have seen Oyotunji and it has not disappeared yet. We want some of these Obas to back Oyotunji in various ways because African Americans want their culture back. We are the most dynamic people to create America. We created jazz, and all of the great music known to man. We created salsa, moranga, there is no music or dance that the black Americans did not start. There is a lot of African food blended in the cuisines of the Americans. African people want the truth now in America and that is why we need the Obas in Yorubaland to back Oyotunji because it means that they would be backing the entire Yoruba race in North America.
How were you chosen to become an Oba and what was the coronation process like? Did you have to do any sacrifice or even eat the heart of the previous king?
Just as it in the history of the ancient Yoruba, the incoming king must partake in the rituals in order to have the agbara (power) and fortitude, it is the truth. The king selection process in Oyotunji is based on Ifa. Baba followed the ancient Oyo tradition whereby the king must select a successor as one of his duties after coronation. Today in Yoruba land, it is very different as you have royal houses and it is moved between different houses. It is never necessarily from father to son as long as the person has a royal blood. In Oyotunji, I was born in December 21, 1976 and the Ifa was consulted to find out my destiny; this is done for all children because African people do not guess what their child would become. Ifa is like our guide. Ifa was cast for me as a baby and it was said in the Odu that I would be the next king of Oyotunji. When I was growing up, I was very shy about it. I also got in trouble a few times for using my royal status. The elders used to beat me sometimes because I used to tell them they could not talk to me like that as the future king. At Oyotunji, my father gave birth to 23 children and I am the 19th child.
What are some of the taboos in your kingdom?
In Oyotunji, you have to be married in order to own land. We don't sell land but we give it to you based on your needs. If you need land, you would have to get a wife and write a petition to the Oba who would grant you some land. If you want to expand, then you can get more wives. If you have more wives and children, we would give you more land so that you would continue to build. You have to practise the Yoruba etiquette, we do not have a moral system but an etiquette system which are some of the things that we expect you to do.
The ethics of Oyotunji require that you dobale (prostrate) when you see your elder or you 'tesile', that is when you touch the ground and kiss your hand. It is a form of respect. At Oyotunji, you have to wear the Yoruba aso (clothes). Oyinbo (foreign) clothes are not necessarily permitted. We accept jeans and danshiki. Women are not allowed to wear pants. Sometimes if we have visitors that are wearing tight dresses, our women would wrap them with a cloth to cover them up because this is the law. We are cultural people and we have ways of doing things, not like the Oyinbo people. There is no fighting in the village and if there is a fight, the aggressor would have to pay. If you want to continue fighting, the elders would take you into the igbo (forest) and both of you can continue. Once that is done, it is over. Each person is required to pay an assessment to the crown. Young boys and girls are not allowed to fraternise and date like you have in the western society where you end up with teenage pregnancy. We have the men and women compounds. You also have to join your gender society at 14. It is like the right of passage, the boys join the Akinkanju society (society of courage), while the girls join the egbe moremi because their heroine is Moremi. All the women in Oyotunji strive to be like Moremi. The idea is that we utilise the laws and rules of our culture. Many years ago, if we had a dance in Oyotuji men and women could not dance together unless you were married and even if you were married, there must be space between both parties while dancing but things are a bit relaxed now. You also have to report daily for community service.
How was your father able to marry 17 wives because it is known that the American law frowns against polygamy?
America has so many funny laws, you have the Quaker people who are in America and they are polygamists. They have television shows called my big love, where a white man has about five or six wives. So polygamy is not something they don't know about. Basically, most Americans practise polygamy but I call it 'illigamy' because it is something they hide. The reason Baba chose to resurrect the act of polygamy is because naturally, there are more women than men on earth and if every man and woman got together, there would be a country full of women who would be alone. The idea is that our marriages are not sanctioned by the state. We never looked to the government or the state for approval or money, we have our own kingdom. There is a sign before you step into Oyotunji that says you are now leaving the United States of America and entering the sacred voodoo kingdom of Orisa priest, we have the laws of our people. Basically, we are letting people know that you are leaving the mindset of America and entering with the mindset of an African. That means you may see things you do not understand and it may be different. At Oyotunji, we issue our own documentation for marriage, so your marriage is based on religion rather than politics. Even our school in the kingdom is sanctioned by Oyotunji. In 1981, Oyotunji was issued a religious charter to operate under a 501C3 status, a non-profit status and it is called the ATA, the African Theological Arch-ministry. So, we are a product of the ATA. This is the business and "legal" arm of Oyotunji. So we are a tax exempt organisation, so we do not pay tax to the state because we are basically considered as a church to the American government or a large religious institution. So we never look to the American government for approval. So today, I have seven wives. My wives are in Canada, Atlanta, Oyotunji, Virginia and different places. African people always did things upfront as opposed to doing it closed doors. European people would sneak out of the big house, go into the plantation and sleep with all the slave girls, then sneak back into the house like nothing ever happened. That is not the case with African men. I like to quote the great Fela Kuti who said that African men don't run around the street chasing women. Instead, he brings the women to his house and surrounds himself with them as he sits in one spot. At Oyotunji everybody does not practise polygamy, it is reserved for only the people that can afford it. It requires a lot of money and land. That scares people away from polygamy and I think I am the only Yoruba in North America that I know who practises polygamy.
Are youths allowed to go into America to acquire their education?
Our education is based on our culture. In Oyotunji, we have our own school, we had to educate ourselves because we could not let the Oyinbos teach our children about Plato, Aristotle, Greek and all these things, we grew up learning about the ancient kingdoms, like Ile Ife, Accra, Ashanti, Ouagadougou, all those great kingdoms of our great extended African ancestors. For a long time, people were not allowed to get jobs outside Oyotunji. Baba looked down on you if you went to get a job outside the village because he believed that we worked for the Oyinbos for over 200 years, now you should work to build an African nation in North America. So for the first 30 years, all the income of Oyotunji came from Oyotunji. As time went on and population decreased because people started moving to other cities to take on other things, Baba encouraged his people to get jobs so that they could make their own money. That was the time I went out and left Oyotunji to explore the outside world. I took up construction and started to learn the major conventional way of building houses and this is something we brought back to Oyotunji. Basically we were taught to go out, acquire something and bring it back to build our nation. I was about 22 years old when I moved to California from there I went to Atlanta then I took up an artisan residence in Key West Florida. I took my both construction knowledge and my African knowledge to build a small village in Key West where the local people there could come and see the Yoruba culture in that little village. It was when I was about 25 years old that I was called back to Oyotunji to assume the throne. I had to give up my fabulous life as a musician to become the king. I played with reggae bands and we travelled, stayed in hotels, met girls, drank, ate and made money. I travelled with a few bands in North America. I performed rap music as well for many years, however, when it was time, they called me home and I had to give up everything in one day. I was living the good life, going to parties one day and the next day I was in Oyotunji dressed in black mourning dress for three months. We used the traditional coronation process as our ancestors did.
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