ktravula – a travelogue!

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Abeokuta’s Living History

WP_20140410_040The history of Abeokuta and the Egba people is tied around a gigantic rock formation, with the transatlantic slave trade that thrived in West Africa featuring at a tangential angle. As usual, there was a war. No actually, a couple of wars. According to known history, the Egba people (consisting at that time of the Egba Agbeyin, also known as the Egba Proper/Egba Alake, who settled around Ake; the Egba Oke Ona who were a group of Egba people who came from the banks of the (Odo) Ona river; and the Egba Agura, also called the Gbagura. A fourth group that now completes the Egba Quartet is the Owu people, formerly residents of Ibadan, who came much later) all migrated to this present place over time, and over several displacements from previous settlements due to inter-tribal skirmishes.

The most recent recorded displacement, according to Johnson’s The History of the Yorubas, was in 1830 when, after a civil war of sorts, fueled by mutual suspicion and unrest, made their continued stay among the Ibadan people unsafe for them.  They escaped into the bush (leaving a couple of their women/daughters behind, many of whom later married Ibadan war lords) and found solace in this current location, many miles south-west of Ibadan, then just a farm of an Itoko man. They called it Abeokuta because of the presence of large rock heads which offered a semblance of protection. It would become a more concrete and practical bulwark against enemies during future wars with other neighbours, especially the Amazons of Dahomey (Now Benin Republic) who actually sent warriors to invade in 1846.

WP_20140410_027The Dahomeyan invasion is a story of its own, since it is one of the recurrent tales told to any visitor climbing to the summit of the Rock. The Ogun river, stretching from north (in Saki) to south (the Atlantic Ocean) had for years brought people and goods into Abeokuta and neigbouring towns. But when war became inevitable, it likely also brought with it fighters from Dahomey many of whom were women (The Amazons). Written history has it that, because the invaders were masked, it took a while for the Egba warrior elders to know that they were mostly females. When they did, they felt quite insulted. Oral history from Abeokuta citizens says that there were “many” of such wars with the warriors from Dahomey, but the History of Yorubas by S. Johnson said there was just one, an invasion of 1846. A Beninois friend of mine verified the story of such “wars”, as he was told in his high school history books. The wars were not just with the Egbas but with a lot of towns and neighbouring nations. It was also quasi-slave-raiding, of course. Most most importantly, they were a warlike people who enjoyed fighting. There is an unstated irony, of course, in the fact that History as a subject has now been struck from textbooks in Nigeria. Expect more amnesia to follow.

The Olumo Rock by default, and by reason, of being the biggest and most remarkable rock formation around, became the chief refuge. It was a vantage point to spy on enemy lines, and the geological mascot of the new town. But because of earlier evolution of the Egba societies as small townships without one central king or ruler, the nation never united under anyone person. The closest they got to that was under Sodeke, a warrior under whose ceremonial leadership the nation settled down in the present day Abeokuta in 1830. Sodeke himself died in 1844, after many years of playing advisory and spiritual roles as the father of the new nation. Subsequent evolution of the town vested (informal) political primacy in the Ogboni cults of spiritual elders rather than on the kings (or chiefs) crowned by the now four large Egba subgroups: The Alake, The Oshile, The Gbagura, and the Olowu.


A darkly fascinating aspect of these migration and settlement patterns is the underlying presence of slave trade which – at that time – provided sufficient motive for most of the inter-tribal internecine wars. Spoils of the wars included not just herds of cattle but able-bodied men and women that were sold for a profit to the slave traders on the coast. Before 1820, according to Digital History, the number of Africans in the United States “outstripped the combined total of European immigrants by a ratio of 3, 4, or 5 to 1.” They were slaves. But by the middle of the 19th Century, the Trans-Atlantic slavery was abolished by The British Empire and many of the Africans still in slavery, as well as those still on the waters, had to be accounted for. Those in the United States couldn’t come home, being “properties” of their owners. However, a number of them were already living free in England and other places. Plus a few others that recently got their freedom, they were put on a ship en route to the continent.

But since many of them couldn’t find their ways to their original homes where they were forcibly stolen as children, they headed to two locations on the West African coast set apart for that particular purpose. First was Freetown, a town in Sierra Leone founded by Britain as colony for emancipated slaves in 1787, and to Liberia (founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society for the same purpose). Those people form what is known in Liberia as the America-Liberian people, and in Sierra Leone as the Sierra Leone Creole people. A number of them retained their Yoruba (and other ethnic names) names, while still carrying the Christian/English names that they had acquired from slavery through their masters. Most of them remained in these places, creating new generations and new identities. But there were a few who, after landing in these places, weren’t satisfied, and kept on seeking for the lost homeland.


Take Daniel Olumuyiwa Thomas, for instance – a man taken forcibly from his hometown in Ilesha while he was eight years old, and sold into slavery. His baptismal name, Daniel, and his adopted last name, Thomas, were names adopted in slavery. According to the account of his grandson in an authorized biographical book This Bitch of a Life (Carlos Moore, 2001), Fela Anikulapo Kuti narrated how, after being set free as a grown man, along with other returning slaves, Thomas embarked on a journey (most likely on foot) to return to his home village. He entered what is now Nigeria, but decided – on reaching Abeokuta – that he was no longer interested in making the rest of the journey (most likely just a few days more) to Ilesha. He settled in Abeokuta where he married and gave birth to modern Nigeria’s famous woman: Olufunmilayo Ransome Kuti (born: 1900).

Another famous returnee from Sierra Leone was Andrew Desalu Wihelm, an evangelist and translator who – on discovering a chance to bring the CMS mission to Abeokuta, his home town, after spending most of his post-slavery adult life resettled in Sierra Leone, jumped at it. Along with Henry Townsend, a European Missionary, he returned to Abeokuta to preach the gospel and lay the foundation of the country’s very first church at Ake. But not all returnees became famous, nor did they all contribute in the same manner and form to the development of the new country, though many did become quite notable. A number of other returnees settled in many other parts of Nigeria, notably on Lagos Island, bearing names like Williams, Pinheiro, DaSilva, Savage, Lewis, Thomas, Crowther, Macaulay, etc.

WP_20140410_056It is interesting, for me at least, to realize that around 1863, while the colonial government in Nigeria was consolidating its hold on their newly found colony, trying to settle the number of inter-tribal wars threatening to set the colony on fire, Abraham Lincoln, many miles across the sea was preparing his Emancipation Proclamation to set free 3.1 million (out of about 4 million) black people who, over three hundred years before, had become entrenched into the system of slavery. About 30 percent of those people, according to some estimates, came from Nigeria. We don’t know how many of those 30% came from Abeokuta, but the legacy of wars around Yoruba kingdoms during those times, and the proximity of South Western Nigeria to the Atlantic Ocean gives us an idea of the mix of people who today define the African American population.

Visiting the town today, with nothing much left but a rustic town, a few colonial landmarks, and the tour guides from every step towards the summit of the Olumo Rock telling where the town has been, one walks again in the corridors of living history. The rock lay there still, in stoic silence, a witness to all that had transpired for centuries before. All the other connections are there in plain (and rock) sight.

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Random Post:
Oh Fulbright.

I received a spirited email yesterday from someone who had found this blog through search for resources and tips about the Fulbright programme. Here’s an excerpt:

I came across your blog a few days ago when searching for fellow Fulbrighters who were willing to share their experiences on the Web. Either my research sucked big time or there were hardly any note-worthy ones except yours. I loved your posts especially your ’10 Reasons Not To Speak Your Native Language’. Haha..that was hilarious. I can totally relate to that. You see, I’m from Malaysia and our national language is Malay. Obviously it’s an unusual language but it has been quite useful during my stay abroad when we don’t want people to understand us. One day, my friends and I were caught red-handed by a Nigerian who spoke Malay!! Thankfully, we were just commenting on how cute he was. Yes, how about that. Turns out he has lived in Malaysia for quite a bit and he was used to the language. Taught me not to be so obnoxious and use Malay like there was no tomorrow =)

Mails like this make me happy to have – in some way, if only through random observations/rants of daily blog posts – provided resources or stimulus to those who might need them to apply for the Fulbright which I believe is a life-changing experience. It also reminds of why blogging is not such a waste of time after all.  For those that may still stumble on this page looking for resources, let me recommend the following links that might help.

What a Day (June 3, 2010)
A Short History of My Face (January 22, 2010)
Why Fulbright (December 16, 2009)
The Conference (December 11, 2009)
I Was Very Close (December 9, 2009)
The Beginning (August 10, 2009)

and a few others…

Like I said in response to the email, the only other most important criteria needed for applying for the program, along with the required knowledge of language, is curiosity and a sense of adventure, and an open mind.


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The Church at Abeokuta

WP_20140410_072WP_20140410_080WP_20140410_069WP_20140410_081WP_20140410_073WP_20140410_079WP_20140410_085WP_20140410_068WP_20140410_076WP_20140410_083The Cathedral of St. Peter at Ake, Abeokuta, is the oldest church in Ake, the oldest church in Abeokuta, the oldest church in Western Nigeria, and – due to the proximity of the town to the Atlantic Ocean and the coming of the first missionaries – the oldest church in all of Nigeria. Built reportedly in 1898, it served as a rallying ground for a number of initial missionaries to Abeokuta many of who played other roles in the government of indirect rule between the Crown in England and the chiefs in Egbaland. The foundation of the church was laid by one Reverend Andrew Desalu Wihelm around 1846, and completed during the time of Henry Townsend.

One of the most known pastors of the church include the Reverend Josiah J. Ransome Kuti (also known as the grandfather of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the inventor of Afrobeat), among many others. A hall in the church premises is named after another famous pastor, the Reverend Henry Townsend.

In some ways, it is the Southern equivalent to the Church in Wusasa – also a first in the north, built in 1902 – whose survival depended very much on the hard work of volunteer priests battling a society that – at the time – very much resisted the change it represented. In the account written in Wole Soyinka’s 1981 Autobiograpy Ake – the Years of Childhood, most of the early missionaries faced life-threatening confrontations with the elders of the town to whom Christianity represented a real and present threat. Many churches fell down after being visited by men from the local cults, sometimes while people worshiped inside. In the case of the Wusasa church, the threat came from the Muslim societies in the north who felt threatened by the new religion. That these structures have lasted so long is homage to maintenance, but more importantly, the cultural place they occupy in the societies that own them.

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Visiting Abeokuta

IMG_0326IMG_0342In continuation of earlier curiosities about ancient towns, with a particular interest in tall structures overlooking large expanses of land, and pursuit of childhood towns/homes of famous and notable citizens of the world, I returned to Abeokuta yesterday for a solo exploration. “Return” is an appropriate word only because two earlier attempts have been too brief to have allowed a worthwhile independent expedition. On the last trip, I was the guardian of a group of students attending a literary festival.

By the end of this particular trip, which lasted a few minutes shy of ten hours, what became clear was the limit of even this independent attempt not backed with the luxury of time and patience. Abeokuta city is about two hours drive (127 km) from Lagos. This leaves a very little window left, insufficient, to say the least, for anyone interested in walking around to the right and notable places that define the town in the eyes of the world. It is for this reason that one NEEDS to be back, this time for a number of days and more.

WP_20140410_066WP_20140410_072Not bigger, likely, than Washington DC which I however managed to walk around on foot on one notable occasion in 2009, Abeokuta holds its own mysteries. From being the birthplace and/or childhood town of some of Nigeria’s most notable people (the Kutis, the Soyinkas, the Abiolas, the Obasanjos, etc), and for its role in some of the earliest wars that defined Yoruba land, and for its role in Christianity and colonialism in Nigeria, and especially for its famous Olumo Rock and its famous rustic atmosphere that is always a welcome respite from the bustle of big cities like Lagos, a third and even fourth visit is always going to be worth it. And except for the raging sun that mandates constant re-hydration  at every point in the trip, and may pose a challenge for someone visiting with wife and kid as this next one is intended, another shot at deciphering its ancient puzzles should yield even deeper pleasures.

WP_20140410_091WP_20140410_081Notable sites visited this time include the famous Olumo Rock which plays an important role in the founding of the city (more on this later), and in the wars that defined its history; the Centenary hall built in 1930 by the colonial administration; the famous Cathedral of St. Peter’s in Ake (the first missionary church in Nigeria) with a hall named after Henry Townsend; and, finally, the traditional palace of the Alake of Egbaland – a paramount king; among others. From on top of the rock, a number of other sites of attraction can be seen: the family houses of Chief MKO Abiola (winner of Nigeria’s 1993 presidential elections), the first mosque in the city, the River Ogun from where the state got its name, and the first television station in the state.

IMG_0417IMG_0395Much as I tried – and I didn’t try much because of the limits of time – I couldn’t locate Wole Soyinka’s childhood home this time, reputed to be located somewhere close to the St. Peter’s Church. For the next trip, deserving of particular attention to this important landmark, I’m heading back into the first chapters of the writer’s 1981 autobiography in which he described proximate locations around his parents house in Ake. The challenge will be to translate geography embellished in fiction into a real life quest in the “sprawling undulating terrain” of the rustic town. Challenge accepted.

More later. And pictures.

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To My Wife

It has been a while since I’ve been mushy, but seeing my wife through the physical and emotional burden of being the primary caregiver for our little son has filled me with tremendous appreciation for the role of mothers in the life of children, and as pillars of families. Yes, I provide support in all the best ways I can, but nothing compares to being the sole source of food and care for a tiny being who also happened to have lived in your uterus for about 9 full months. There were the days of crazy cravings of pregnancy, and those involving spontaneous vomiting in uncomfortable places. There were the fevers, and the cramps, and the final days in the labour ward. And now, even after all that, a tiny thing latches onto your body for survival for about a couple of months more. Sleepless nights, nipple sores, worry, and days spent fretting about every new development in the stages of the newborn’s life.

For many, like her, driven and ambitious career-wise, giving up full-time work is just one of the sacrifices to make in pursuit of the having it all. And in today’s patriarchal societies with no paid maternity or paternity leave, it is often a costly trade-off. Maybe if everyone lived in Sweden, for instance (with a reported 13 weeks paid leave for parents of a new child), or Canada (with about 35 weeks of paid maternity/paternity leave, life might be a bit easier for everyone. A shame, in this case, that Nigeria, the 26th largest economy in the world, and the largest in Africa, can’t afford to give its citizens the comfort and peace of mind that comes from paid leave for child care.

This post is to appreciate all the mothers doing well by their families, sometimes at the expense of their own careers of individual pursuits. This post is to appreciate my wife for all her work and dedication to the building of a great, functional, and healthy family.

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On the “Giants of History” – Book Review

One of the projects I worked on from the middle of last year (in many capacities, most notably as an editor and all-round busybody) is a book of profiles and biographies titled Giants of History. (322 pages. Sage Publishers. Lagos)

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Written by journalist, and politician, Lateef Ibirogba (Currently the commissioner for Information in Lagos State), it is a look at 150 selected great men and women in history whose lives were exemplars of tenacity, dedication, leadership, and hard work – most of them. Readers who pick up the book will see why these descriptors don’t apply to all of the “giants” selected. The only thing that ties them together as deserving of being in the book is the extraordinarily notable lives they lived, the number of lives they touched, the power of their example, and their tremendous influence on the generations that followed them.

I was drawn to the book because of a number of reasons. When I was young, one of the most notable books I read that opened my mind to the idea of doing great things, and living a life worthy of being written about, was a book by Sanya Onabamiro titled Philosophical Essays (1980), and another by Tam David West, also with a similar title: Philosophical Essays: Reflections on the Good Life (1980). What both of them did – and I can’t tell one apart from the other anymore now – was lay down arguments supporting or opposing particular events in history, while highlighting why they had to happen and who was responsible. I will get those books again if I can ever find them, but one of the most important things they did for me was to open my mind, and challenge me to dream. They also informed me about a number of relevant historical events and their effect on the world. When I was invited to work on Giants of History, I had flashbacks to my delight with these great books. The format that Lateef Ibirogba chose to use in presenting this book in was just as important, and the role of his book serves just about the same purpose as highlighting history for those interested in it, and giving credit where due to the important human precursors to today’s important inventions and achievements.

frontThe book has now been published, and will be launched in Lagos on April 22nd. I will be there at the launch, which should feature a number of heavy names in politics, publishing, and writing in Nigeria. The book reviewer, Tade Ipadeola – a lawyer and creative writer – was the winner of the 2013 Nigerian Prize for Literature (the highest literary prize on the continent, which carries a prize money of $100,000). I expect that the governor of the state will be there as well, along with a number of other still-living Nigerians whose names also made it into the book. It is important to mention that one of the impressive nature of a work of this kind is its good sense to include in the work not just historical figures from older civilizations around the world, like Plato, Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, but also notable historical figures from our own national environment, like Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Mary Slessor, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Madam Tinubu, Fela Kuti, Chinua Achebe, among many others.

backI invite you to look out for the book, and to buy not just for yourself, but for your relatives, especially the young ones not yet sure of where life would take them, or what the point of everything is. If I could still remember the influence of a book on me as a thirteen-year old reader, then precocious thirteen year-olds around you will definitely appreciate you giving them a gift of such work.

A contrarian case might be made as to why publish a book of biographies when there is Wikipedia and the world-wide web to inform us – in multimedia richness – of the lives of living and dead heroes. The answer would be that the book is not dead. It is movable and presentable, and it is still the closest way to reach a reader, not hindered by access to electricity or the internet. It can be read in the village as in the city, and thus its relevance.

I have been told that the work (available in hardcover and paperback) will be available for sale on electronic outlets like Jumia.com or Konga.com, as well as in brick and mortar bookstores across Lagos (and maybe later to the rest of the country). Interested bloggers who would like to come to the launch (and get a chance to have signed complimentary copies of the book which they may use to write their own reviews), should contact me at kt AT ktravula.com. There is a little budget for that, so your effort won’t be in vain. Hit me up.

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