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Abeokuta’s Living History

WP_20140410_040The history of Abẹ́òkuta and the Ẹ̀gbá 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 Ẹ̀gbá people (consisting at that time of the Ẹ̀gbá Àgbẹ̀yìn, also known as the Ẹ̀gbá Proper/Ẹ̀gbá Aláké, who settled around Ake; the Ẹ̀gbá Òkè Ọnà who were a group of Ẹ̀gbá people who came from the banks of the (Odò/River) Ọnà; and the Ẹ̀gbá Àgúrá, also called the Gbágùrá. A fourth group that now completes the Ẹ̀gbá Quartet is the Òwu people, formerly residents of Ìbàdàn, 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 Ìbàdàn, then just a farm of an Itoko man. They called it Abẹ́òkuta 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 Ògùn 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 Ẹ̀gbá warrior elders to know that they were mostly females. When they did, they felt quite insulted. Oral history from Abẹ́òkuta 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. Mafoya Dossoumon, 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 Ẹ̀gbás 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 Olúmo 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 Ẹ̀gbá 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 Sódẹkẹ́, a warrior under whose ceremonial leadership the nation settled down in the present day Abeokuta in 1830. Sódẹkẹ́ 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 Ògbóni cults of spiritual elders rather than on the kings (or chiefs) crowned by the now four large Ẹ̀gbá subgroups: The Aláké, The Ọshilẹ̀, The Gbágùrá, and the Olówu.

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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.

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Take Daniel Olúmúyìwá 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), Felá Anikulapo Kútì 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: Olúfúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome Kúti (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 Aké. 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, George, Moloney, Boyle, Berkley, 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 twenty-three to thirty percent of those people, according to different estimates, came from Nigeria. We don’t know how many of those came from Abeokuta, but the legacy of wars around Yorùbá 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.

…and the Caribbean population.

In one famous chapter in Wole Soyinka’s definitive memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn, the author found himself in a country town in Westmoreland, Jamaica, named Bẹ́kuta. Surprised at the close proximity of the town’s name to his own hometown Abẹ́òkutahe asked around. The town, like the author’s own hometown was surrounded by huge rocks in all places. After having run out of luck with the local population of young and modern citizens with no care in the world for why anyone would care about an old name, he eventually ran into an old woman who remembered why it was so called. The first residents of the town – freed slaves who worked as indentured workers – felt that only one name captured this place that reminded them of where they (or their ancestors) were captured from: Abẹ́òkuta, or later, Abẹ́kuta, and eventually Bẹ́kuta (and later, Kuta), all meaning the same thing: the town under the rocks. When the author returned to the town, the woman had died and no one else in the town had any memory of the stories from which the town’s name came. (A cursory online search shows that the memory of the story actually survived.)

Visiting the original Abeokuta today, with nothing much left but a rustic town, a few colonial and traditional landmarks, and the tour guides from every step towards the summit of the Olúmọ Rock telling where the town has been, one walks again in the corridors of living history. The rock lies 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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All photos courtesy of the blogger. 

Edit (15th September, 2015): I’ve fixed some of the dead links in the post by referring to earlier instances of the articles via the WayBackMachine.

Update (13th October, 2015): This piece was recently “highly commended” at the 2015 CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards.

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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 the East and Back

Travel, at conception, usually seems like a quick movement from one inch of earth to the other. In reality – at least as was the case with my just-concluded return to East Africa – it is a whole mental, emotional, and psychological trip, tremors from which can last a life time. A few hours ago, I returned from a visit to Kenya to attend the CNN/Multichoice African Journalist Awards 2015, in company of other finalists and nominees, as the first blogger to have been shortlisted for the prize in its 20 year history – a great feat in itself – for this story I wrote last year, in the “Culture” category.

IMG_0012From Wednesday, October 7th to Sunday, October 11th, invited guests (which also included past winners of the prize in its 20 year history), nominees, and the prize judges, were taken around places in Nairobi, from the famous Karura Forest to the Nairobi National Museum, among other places, for networking sessions and a chance to bond over conversations around journalism in Africa. At the final gala on the night of Saturday, October 10th, the winners were announced and the final prize given to the winner by the president of Kenya, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta.

The tremors that remain however are more than that of a grateful writer whose vocation, done typically as a way of passing time away from the real grit of daily preoccupation, has taken him towards the pinnacle of a noble profession. They are also of a reuniting with a country – once visited before nevertheless – which holds a host of fascinating interests for a linguist and curious traveller. One week was not enough, and it never pretended to be, to explore the pleasures of a country of over 47 million people, covering about 582,650 km2. But it was sufficient to meet up with colleagues from Moi University (Eldoret) where I had spent some time in 2005 with three other students from the University in Ibadan on a soci0-cultural exchange programme, to visit the Strathmore School (which is the first multi-racial school in the country, founded in 1961) as well as the African Nazarene School where a fellow Fulbright FLTA from 2009 now works in administration, to see the Giraffe Centre at Karen and a number of other places of significance to me as a writer and to Kenyan literature, and world history. Karen Blixen also features prominently. Making friends, seeing new places, and winning recognition for one’s work never felt so normal, ordinary, and exhilarating at the same time, especially when it was, for the most part, unexpected.

In the next couple of blog posts, over several weeks, I will be publishing – here on this blog that got me into all of this in the first place – a report of some of my most memorable encounters in Kenya, with pictures, and with perhaps enough restraint to avoid negatively contrasting Nigeria with her in the process, as I’ve done publicly and privately in the last couple of days. I can say, however, for a fact, that this is one of my most personally fulfilling travel experiences, made more significant by how short it actually was.

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On His First (Bilingual) Words

One advantage of having a young child to raise, as a linguist, is the chance to use them as human study materials for language acquisition. It’s so cool I don’t know why I never thought of it before.

IMG_9437In any case, already a little sensitive to the intrusion of English into that early education space that I (and a majority of researchers) believe should be meant for the mother tongue, I’m pleasantly surprised that all of my son’s first words are – so far – in Yorùbá. At eighteen months and a few weeks, we’re now able to recognise “gbà” (take), and “bàbá” (father) out of hundreds of other yet incomprehensible syllables. He, of course, also says “bye-bye”, an English expression, with his wrist flailing up and down in a goodbye wave. The linguistic explanation for his easy acquisition of bilabial plosives first isn’t far-fetched.

However, from the time he was able to listen to instructions, I’d made a habit of regularly prodding him to pronounce those common Yorùbá words. Bàbá (father), Màmá (mother), “gbà (here, have), “wá” (come here), wo (look!), maabọ̀, etc. So far, he hasn’t mastered them all, but he knows what they mean and how they are used. And now, he can already pronounce a few of them. He can also understand equally accessible English words like “no” and “come” and “mummy”, which is helpful, since his mother speaks predominantly in English.

What I’ve come to discover in the end is that this bilingual upbringing will likely follow a similar path as monolingual one as far as the acquisition of complex terms are concerned. No matter what language the child learns first, won’t he still learn the easy, monosyllables first, and then others? And if that’s the case, why not just open him up to as many languages are possible? In any case, pure monolingualism is, these days, likely an impossible eventuality. Not in Nigeria anyway.

Maybe I have a theory here somewhere. In any case, there is hope.

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PS: I’m currently editing Ake Review 2015  the literary publication of the Ake Festival 2015. If I’m not on this blog as regularly as I’ve always been, this is why. If you are in this area, you should come to Abeokuta in November for a gathering of writers from across the world.

I’m also working on my TED talk meant for delivery at TEDxIfe event in November. It’s a talk I’m tailoring towards this issue of bilingualism, particularly the destructive nature of our current educational policies. I’m currently in-between getting together a sunny speech to convey what is actually the gloom I feel. Not an easy balance.

Also, school has resumed, so plenty busy days lie ahead.

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