An exceptional gathering

First published in The Nation, Lagos

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Rich in distinctive cultural heritage, the Yoruba people at home and in the Diaspora often manifest their values in unique dimensions. Now, in what promises to be a celebrated gathering, they are coming together from all over the world to celebrate the first ever Yoruba Festival of Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC). The clarion call is “Let’s go home to celebrate” as Fatherland beckons

With Professor Wole Soyinka and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu as ambassadors, the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture scheduled for April promises to be an uncommon gathering of the nation as the man behind the project, Alaroye publisher Alao Adedayo, told Group Arts and Culture Editor, SOLOMON TAI ADETOYE

His sojourns around the world exposed Alao Adedayo to cultural trends among his Yoruba people scattered across the globe. What he saw left him not only worried but also inspired. So after sharing the vision with his top team at Alaroye, a stakeholders’ meeting was quickly summoned. The purpose of which was to work out modalities for hosting a cultural festival of the Yoruba peoples.

Legal practitioner and Islamic leader Dr. Lateef Adegbite, former Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife Professor Wale Omole, cultural icon and former Nigerian ambassador to Ethiopia Chief Segun Olusola, Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Fredrick Fasehun and retired General Alani Akinrinade were among personalities at the stakeholders’ meeting. All South West state governments were represented.

“The whole thing began in June last year,” Alao Adedayo told The Nation. “I was out of the country in May. During the trip, the erosion of cultural links of our people abroad came up again and again. I can’t say how it actually happened… that is how I got the vision. But it was on my return to the country after the trip that we at Alaroye decided to organise a festival of Yoruba arts and culture.”

It goes beyond cultural concerns. Alaroye is at the forefront of indigenous language print medium in Nigeria. A Yoruba language, its patronage is predominantly by the people of the South West Nigeria. In Adedayo’s words, “It is the Yoruba people who had brought Alaroye to where it is today. And it is Alaroye that has brought us to limelight both home and abroad. So, the festival is part of our giving back to the society where we got everything. It a gesture of appreciation and social responsibility.”

When Adedayo shared with those present at the stakeholders’ meeting, his proposed Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture nomenclature for the proposed event earned an addition. According to Adedayo, “Those present said if we were planning to bring organise an event that would involve people from all over the world, while no name it so? So, ‘world’ was added. Hence the name World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture (WOFEYAC).”

One of the people who could not make the first stakeholders’ meeting was Wole Soyinka who was out of the country at the time. On his return, he placed a call to Alao Adedayo to be updated on developments. After another trip abroad, one of the first things he did on his return was to call Adedayo again to get updated. The events that took place at the Ake Palace Ground at Abeokuta last October 2 therefore came as no surprise.

On October 2, 2007, the logo of WOFEYAC was formally unveiled at a ceremony the had in attendance the crème de la crème of Yoruba sons and daughters from all walks of life. The ceremony also doubled as the official announcement of Wole Soyinka as the Global Ambassador of WOFEYAC.

As the Alake of Egbaland Oba Adedotun Gbadebo, Professor Wole Soyinka and a handful of other dignitaries came out of the residential section of the sprawling palace complex to the Palace Ground, an open events venue with VIP sitting area, drumming and singing resounded in the air. The excitement was infectious. By the time the events proper took off, nobody was left in doubt of the enormity of what was happening – a landmark event that those present will proudly announce their witnessing when culture historians refer to it in future.

The front row of the seating that was several rows deep would convince anybody that the organisers were serious. If King Suny Ade represented the Yoruba musical constituency its royal sector was ably represented by the Alake and the Olowo of Owo Oba Folagbade Olateru-Olagbegi. The intellectuals? Dr. Lateef Adegbite was present while Professor Akinwunmi Isola, Yoruba author and linguist delivered the lecture of the day. Oodua People’s Congress founder Dr. Frederick Fasehun who sat alongside business moguls said the opening prayer – of course, in the traditional way. Representatives of the South West states’ governors later took their turns to deliver solidarity messages. Scintillating performances by the cultural troupes of Lagos and Ogun states gave a foretaste of what one can look up to at WOFEYAC.

This was not the first time Alaroye was gathering Yoruba leaders together. Beginning from 2002, the publishing house has organised a series of forum tagged Gathering of Yoruba Leaders. These forums boasts of having great names in Yoruba land present at different times and in different capacities. Among these are Professor Bolaji Akinyemi who delivered the lecture at the first forum, Chief Richard Akinjide, Pa Abraham Adesanya and Pa Emmanuel Alayande who sent a representative. Others are Dr. Lateef Adegbite, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Otunba Gbenga Daniel, the Alaafin of Oyo, retired Generals Adeyinka Adebayo and Alani Akinrinade, Otunba Gani Adams and Dr. Frederick Fasehun who never missed any session.

“We organised Gathering of Yoruba Leaders to bring together leaders of thought in Yoruba land to ponder on issues of unity and progress of the Yoruba people,” Adedayo said. “We were concerned with creating a vision for the future development of our people.”

Adedayo said the Alaroye team was concerned by the state of affairs in the land whereby a people with great potentials for development had been reduced to their present state because of what he described as self interest of the leaders. Immediate gratification, he said, had taken the place of planning for say the next sixty years.

“It would be stupid for any set of people to start thinking of separation in Nigeria today,” he said. “We have gone beyond that level. What we are saying is that the Yoruba people have the potentials of becoming more economically powerful, politically developed and socially advanced than any other group in Nigeria.”

According to him, the reason for this is not far fetched. Its root is in the early education of the Yoruba people which produced among them professors and doctorate degree holders at a time when some other groups were yet to reach out for university education. He referred to two pointer during the colonial era. “Way back in 1945, late sage Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote a book challenging the presence of colonial rulers in Nigeria. Education is a tool of liberation. It is a fact that because of the edge the Yoruba people had in the area of education they were the administrator running the government in the north and part of the east during the colonial days.”

Regrettably, gains of the gatherings could not be consolidated. According to Adedayo, “The gatherings brought great promises. For example, it was at the first gathering that Chief Richard Akinjide raised the issue of two thirds and called upon those who might have been aggrieved to let’s put it behind us.”

The two thirds issue was when Chief Richard Akinjide representing Alhaji Shehu Sagari of the National Party of Nigeria whose 1979 presidential election victory had been challenged by Unity Party of Nigeria presidential candidate late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In what not quite a few Yoruba consider betrayal of great mischievous proportion of Yoruba interest, Akinjide went before the election tribunal and in what would earn any mathematician a Nobel Prize calculated two thirds of nineteen states. Twelve states and two thirds of one!

Gestures such as Akinjides and promises of united front for progress ended up falling on their face as soon as political jostling for power took over.

“We had thought the leaders would steer Yoruba people in the right direction,” said Adedayo. “But we have discovered that it was wrong not to also try and carry the people along.”

WOFEYAC which is scheduled to hold in April in Lagos and Abeokuta simultaneously is an attempt at this.

Alao Adedayo went further to paint a vivid image of second motivation for WOFEYAC. All over the world, there are Yoruba people who had travelled abroad to better their lots in life. Most of them, he said, did not plan to stay long. They only planned to stay maybe five or ten years. At the end of the day, lack of concrete achievements keep them there for long.

Offspring of these Yoruba people end up growing up not as Yoruba. Apart from the fact that they are in different cultural environment, there is the problem of their parents who do not have the time to raise them. They are brought up by foster parents such as day care centres as the parents have to go to work early and return late. By the time they grow up, there is nothing in them resembling Yoruba heritage. Some, contends Adedayo, end up marrying people from other countries and getting to settle down in places like the Caribbean.

The fate of these people is different from that of earlier Yoruba Diaspora of the slave trade era. Completely uprooted in groups and settled permanently, the latter held on to their cultural heritage. The Diaspora of this age is made up of individual sojourners whose plans never went beyond going away for a few years.

To convert this disadvantage into an advantage, the Alaroye crew believe the World Festival of Yoruba Arts and Culture is a veritable tool. Drawn back to their roots, these scattered Yoruba will become part of the movement to move the Yoruba nation forward.

While Professor Wole Soyinka who according to Adedayo hardly stays more than two weeks at a stretch in Nigeria is mobilising the outside world, former Lagos State governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu has been named the National Ambassador of WOFEYAC. His own former presentation in this capacity is billed for next month.

Adedayo explained how these choices were made: “Prof. you know is an arts man, a cultural man. His itinerary takes him all over the world. He is therefore well positioned to spread the message. At the same time, we need someone who can take the message to all parts of Nigeria. I am talking of someone who has access to places like the presidency and national assembly because we need to present a clear image of what we are doing before people will come to the wrong conclusion that it is paganism. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is well positioned for this.”

The event itself is billed as a cultural fiesta featuring different aspects of Yoruba life – dance, music, festivals, arts, food, just name it. While groups like Yoruba Council of Elders have representatives on the planning committee, Professor Wande Abimbola is the link with the Ifa devotees. Talks are on with Osun State government to stage a mini Osun Festival. All governors in the South West are patrons while traditional rulers are life patrons. Either as part of the steering committee or as advisers, hardly is there any part of Yoruba leadership that is not involved in WOFEYAC. Adedayo explained that this was to carry everybody along.

Egypt’s role as a base of Black civilisation brought the country in as it is expected to send a cultural team. Countries of West Africa with Yoruba presence, Europe and the Americas are sending delegates. In fact, there are groups in the Caribbean who are requesting that the dates be moved forward a little to enable them prepare better.

In the entrenched Yoruba cultural habit of wrapping even the most serious notions in fun and excitement, the payoff of the festival is Omo Yoruba, e je ka rele odun o. Yoruba sons and daughters, let’s go home for festivities. Homeland beckons. No doubt millions are bound to respond.

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