Ilé-Ifẹ̀ begins with a boulder, then a crevice. It splinters at the lap, opens into legs, into toes, then rejoins at the hair, the nape. Ilé-Ifẹ̀ rolls and rolls in a way Ibadan doesn’t. Metallurgic: the perfect linguistic alchemy to describe Ilé-Ifẹ̀. From the adjoining road that leads to Ondo, you remember that this place now embodies the migration of the ancient people of Ilé-Ifẹ̀; that this present location of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ has become a Yoruba monastery.
Then, you delve into the city.
The Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) sits mournfully with its moss; a palimpsest walkway downward where a garage leads to Ibadan, and other places. A simple junction cutting into six roads: two, into the campus; two, towards Aserifa, the garage; one, that leads to Orí-Olókun Junction (popularly known as Mayfair); the sixth road is where you are coming from, that leads to Osogbo.
For a tourist, or a notorious itinerant even, you wonder if this Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is the Ilé-Ifẹ̀ you hear about on the radio: the glorious city of Oduduwa where Moremi Ajasoro became a hero during the Ifẹ̀-Ugbo skirmishes. You do not know that for the past few months there has been a burning, a curfew, heaps of burnt tires and climate waste at the Orí-Olókun Junction – the famous, vertical-cicatrix head surrounded by a hamlet, overgrown grasses, a rounding walkway-tryst for agama lizards, dust.
From the shuttle at Campus Gate, the Orí-Olókun sculpture looks undignified, too diminutive for a Brazil-styled tourism campaign. Has the government consigned such an honourable figure to oblivion? Or does Orí-Olókun, a female deity, suffer mistreatment in synonymy with the millions of Nigerian women who are often neglected and subjugated? Does patriarchy extend, invariably, into neuter, non-living things? Is the neglect of Orí-Olókun, simultaneously, the neglect of God matters or Queer matters – since, in Sateria religion in Brazil, Olókun is seen as an androgynous Orixa? Or is this just political sidelining for other prominent infrastructural activities?
In the Candomble religion of Brazil, Olókun is venerated as the mother of Yemoja and the owner of the seas; in Yoruba as the mother of Aje (wealth). As narrated in the Ifa divination system, Olókun, meaning the owner of oceans, became enraged one day, resenting a Humanity that did not render her the homage she deserved and rose to the surface of the earth. Olókun did this to submerge the world and drown humans. The Orishas (deities) went to Orunmila (a superior deity) to ask for a solution; thus, Orunmila said Ogun (god of creativity and iron) needs to create the longest chain for Obatala (god of all special people) to trap Olókun in their domain. Ogun fashioned an iron chain for Obatala, and the latter went into the ocean to trap Olókun in the deep recesses of the ocean.
That, by the way, is one version of Olókun’s story.
When we get to a culturally opulent place and find it impoverished, it is natural to wonder where all the opulence had gone. It is also natural to want to investigate, to want to justify the history we know of it.
My looking forward to Ilé-Ifẹ̀ was predicated on my admission into the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU). It began in 2019 when I first visited the school. I was awed by its austere, high-rise structures. This predilection reached its zenith by the stroke of the 2021 Netflix film, Citation, which is primarily set on the OAU campus. OAU then became my only choice.
OAU was the place of attraction for me, not Ilé-Ifẹ̀; especially, not Ilé-Ifẹ̀’s incomplete infrastructural glory. Contrast this with Ibadan, whose downslope coppery roofs was a place of attraction for me, and the inspiration for J P Clark’s ‘Ibadan’; or Kaduna and Zaria, the inverted, coordinated cluster of cars and peoples that amuses; or Zamfara where life was small, and everybody seemed a happy lot. I’ve lived in these places, excluding Ibadan, and I don’t feel psychologically tied to them. And where I’m drawn to, where I feel like I know its history and am a part of, is unspectacular. Almost disappointing.
What is the draw of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ itself? Have the glories of Ilé-Ifẹ̀ now retreated to history books and souvenirs?
Curious for answers, I took the opportunity to go on a hiking tour at the OAU for the departmental mountaineering – a tour of the mountain that rotates all departments of the university. From the mountaintop on the campus, the city sprawls unaware of its marketability and tourism potential. On the south side of Ifẹ̀, a colony of bats pour and circle above the Betsay building standing with a few other shops before they travel away from sight. Northward is an expanse of green land, a winding tarred road and lorries often transporting timbers; westward into the city is pale with yellow bulbs in evenings and barely palpitating during afternoons.
If Ilé-Ifẹ̀ was aware of how invested every Yoruba-culture enthusiast is, she progresses at an even slower pace than expected at satiating their affection. Osogbo, for example, can be a paradigm: how it began and how it is going; new ‘uniconic’ bridges, new entwining roads, schools on a service-debt plan, colleges beginning to sprout like Sahara cacti, and, most importantly, the brawl between its leaders. Osogbo is one notorious example though; the bridge at the centre of it is so redundant it puts the two cities side-by-side, both lacking in, one: the utilisation of its cultural prestige; two: a concentric effort at salvaging its moribund academic efforts.
Every city has dug itself – to their kneecap – into historical tangles. Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is no exception. More often than not, the city and what it entails faces a court-martial against anti-progressive forces. Especially in the African context where the African Renaissance does so much as moves so little, the city stands at the risk of cultural extinction. The city stands at the risk of everything. Its language is tailored by sheer negligence of what it fully interprets, and how belligerent Englishes have become in regularising Yoruba words without linguistic import, or with it, albeit with palimpsest metaphorical meaning.
Yes, Ilé-Ifẹ̀ has a lot on her plate. Yet, Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is the bedrock of Yoruba culture. The limelights are on this city, the up and coming Yoruba language users are watching; they would want to, someday, make a definitive choice on their language, their culture, versus the English language. Ilé-Ifẹ̀ must live up to its name and contribute to a true African Renaissance where every Yoruba-born has a right to know and embrace their roots.
I didn’t think about all these on my first visit to the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ilé-Ifẹ̀. Even when I gained admission, and a week after that. But I knew on my first visit as I sat in the car and watched dust gather on the roadside thickets that Ilé-Ifẹ̀ didn’t feel like the Ilé-Ifẹ̀ I read about.
Isaiah Adepoju,18, writes from Osun State, Nigeria. He edits and reads for Adroit Poetry Journal, UK, Patchwork Magazine, US. Also, he writes for Augment Review and Literature Voices. He won the 2022 HIASFEST Star Prize and the 2021 Pengician Chapbook Prize. He is currently working on an abnormal novel. He tweets at @IsaiahgbengaAd1.
Cover photo credit: Taiwo Awede