Professor Sophie Oluwole retired 18 years ago from the Department of Philosophy, University of Lagos. In her research that produced several books on philosophy, Ifa and Orunmila were to correct the Western philosophers that Africans have a philosophy. The 83-year- old professor speaks to Flora Onwudiwe about training some young people that will take after her
You are a Professor of Philosophy, Why do you choose to write on Ifa and other deities and what are the sources of your new ideas?
Well, during my study of philosophy, the only philosophy I was taught was Western Philosophy. That’s not all; I was always taught that Africans have no ideas, they cannot think, they are stupid, they have no philosophy, they have nothing, and each time they said that I was agitated to find out whether that is true. If you say Africans have no ideas, I was interested in finding out; is there anything in Africa.? That was how I started looking to see if I can find African ideas. I know that there are so many theories, proverbs and so on, but I discovered that the Yoruba people had something which they call Ifa system. Although it is generally regarded as a divination system; a communication between man and God, some lecturers like Prof. Wande Abimbola had written some ideas on Ifa. I first read his books the 16th Major Books and Chapters of Ifa, but they were literature. If this is literature, then I should read it may be I will get new ideas from there. That was why I started searching Yoruba for recorded ideas in Ifa system.
The belief is that a man who holds that system is called Orunmila Baba Ifa. The patron of Ifa is called Orunmila. Some people say Orunmila descended from heaven but whether he descended or not, he was a human being, teaching people knowledge, he had disciples, he practised divination; Ifa is a system of divination
Is that why you chose to focus on tradition, especially on Ifa and other deities, not Philosophy?
That is the mistake you people make. What is philosophy? Philosophies are ideas of people about reality, God, politics. Does it mean that only the West has Philosophy? Every Language in the world; Chinese people have their own philosophy, Japanese, why not Africans? You see, I was told in my class that it is only the Westerners that have Philosophy and me was forced to find out if that is true. Philosophy expressions are human beings’ about different aspects of life. The thinking of people; what they think about man, woman, politics, religion and these thoughts of human beings are they not expressed in particular languages. The ideas of the British people are they not in English, the ideas of the French are they not in French; same with the Germans. So if Africans have ideas which we can call philosophy, will it not be in our language. You see the problem with my dear Africa. The only example, I have is in the Yoruba Language. So let me correct you, Philosophy exists in all cultures of the world and not only Western. As the thinking of the British, German, French and Chinese people is their Philosophy, so is the thinking of the Yoruba people in their language, Philosophy; because for you to express a philosophy, you must use a language. So if you are talking about African Philosophy, how many languages do you have in Africa? In Nigeria alone, we have 256 languages; I chose the one I know because it is the only language I know. I want to look at the thinking of the Yoruba people to see whether there is Philosophy in it. I want to confirm whether they have or they don’t have a philosophy, and unless I look into Yoruba language and Oral tradition, there is no way to know whether they have African Philosophy or not. For you to say there is no African Philosophy, you must know all African languages to know there is no Philosophy and that is stupid as nobody does. Let me repeat that to say there is no African philosophy, you must know all African languages, you must have studied them and you don’t see philosophy there. There is nobody who has done that. I used Yoruba as an example to show philosophy exists in all languages and you must speak one language to know whether there is philosophy there or not.
While writing the book on Ifa, what were your new discoveries?
First, let me warn; William Bascom was an American who came to Nigeria to write a book about Ifa. He studied Ifa and he felt it is the communication between man and God. In other words, what is in Ifa is what God told the Yoruba people and that is communication between man and God and they are using it for divination. This should not be strange to you; if you study the book of Moses in the Bible, everything that Moses wrote, what did he say,?
‘And God says to Moses…,’ So Moses wrote his communication between God and man. That is the way of looking at it. The idea is when you consult the Ifa divinatory, he throws the signs (cowries) and to you, he is talking to God.
Is divination really about talking to God or to deities?
Well, you can call it anything you like. When you call God or small god, it is talking to the Supernatural being; that is what the Ifa man tells you. But there is something you have to know. I go to an Ifa diviner and according to him; he is talking to the spiritual being. What do they learn, if I ask the Ifa Priest, what Eji ogbe is, he will read it, is he talking to any supernatural being? There were 16 chapters and whenever he is reading an Ifa verse, is he talking to a supernatural being, he can come out and read the verse, he is not denying it.
How does the diviner learn his trade?
The literature you must learn by heart, without literature dictated to him by heart, the person reading Psalm 23 is he communicating with a deity? When you credit Literature to Ifa or Orunmila to something else and it is written in a book when I read the book, am I talking to Orunmila? So what I am saying is that when I take an Ifa piece and my interest is to look at the literature, I am not trying to communicate with a deity. What did the Ifa say in this particular piece, because its language is in literature, it is when I look at the literature that I will know whether communism is there, democracy is there, marriage is there and reincarnation is there? I must look at what the people say before I will know what they say, so to me I am studying literature and I am not studying divination. Divination is a thing that we learn. The expression you give is what I take as literature. I want to understand the literature, what did the Yoruba people say. What do they mean, is there any idea about socialism; that is what I study. So I am reading the literature on Ifa and not the practice.
Nigeria seems to have a low reading culture. How would your efforts be appreciated in the larger society?
Can you define not having a reading culture? How do we read? What is a reading culture? It means having the ability to read; in what language? Today, education in Nigeria is given in English, isn’t it? But suppose I can read in Yoruba, does it mean I have no reading culture? I was joking with my Philosophy professors when I was given lectures and I said you professors are illiterates. Are you going to say that the professors have no reading culture?
They have reading culture because they can read in English. So when I told a professor that you are illiterate, they will say how can you say I am an illiterate? I brought a sheet of paper on which I wrote Yoruba, he could not read it, is he not an illiterate? Today, reading is carried from form one to University in English. So to have a reading culture you must read in English. But suppose I can read Yoruba, don’t I have a reading culture? But there is a problem; we have 256 languages in Nigeria and English is used by all of us, I agree. Because I read in Yoruba, the Igbo man will not understand my language and vice versa, so let us be careful. The general reading culture in Nigeria is English, and for you to be able to address everybody in Nigeria, you must speak English. Some people are very good in Yoruba but they don’t speak English, I agree that English is what they use to unify us but the danger is reading English alone is what qualifies you as educated, now you are illiterate in your own language.
You are 83 years old, your creativity seems to be going down
That is a practical question. I am still thinking and I am still writing. The day I cannot write, I will stop, but for your information I have set up a centre; Centre for African Culture and Development (CACD) and I am training people to do what I am doing because even if I live to be 100 years, whether I like it or not like every human being I will die. So even if I have the ability to write now, can I write after I am dead? No. As you know death is inevitable; you must train people to continue the way you are thinking. Fortunately, I have a few people who are in the group that I am training. They are much younger so that whenever I leave this mortal world, they can continue. But I am still writing because I still have the capacity to write.
Which are some of these books mentioned?
The first book I wrote was Philosophy and Oral Tradition (1999), A Witchcraft, Reincarnation and the God Head (1991), Katanfuru, (to show that Africans have ideas) (2015), Socrates and Orunmila (to compare the Yoruba thoughts in Ifa and thoughts of Socrates in the West). Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy (2017). Co-authored; African Myths and Legends of Gender (2014) with J.O. Akin Sofoluwe.
You are known to be a radical, courageous woman; some say your philosophical background made you so. Do you agree?
What is the meaning of radical; I think the greatest tragedy to human kind is for somebody to accept everything as it is. If what you meet in the world you accept it, you cannot make progress. You must challenge, you must find out, you must be radical, you must find out whether what has been said is correct or not. Every philosopher in the West is who challenges the philosopher that came before him and that is to be radical. If Aristotle accepted Socrates, there would be no Aristotle. Anybody who challenges what has been said before is a radical. But if you memorise what has been said before and you keep quiet, then that is not me. I want to say whether what they tell me is true or false. And that is why when I come out, I will say the truth; that is why they say I am different and radical is a discovery.
Yoruba culture does not believe that your sex determines who you are. The Yoruba agree that men can be bold but there are some women who can be bolder than some men. Ti Okunrin ba ri ejo ti Obirin pa, means a man sees a snake and he runs the woman kills it, is that not strange? When the snake is killed it does not matter whether a man or a woman kills it. Whether I inherited it from my mother or father, I don’t want to trace history. My grandfather was an Edo man at that time in Akure area and Ogedengbe was coming to Ilesa to destroy them. So the Oba of Benin sent somebody to police village in Igbareko, which was my grandfather; man who was sent from Benin to be the ambassador of Benin Empire. My grandfather is from Benin, he was not a Yoruba man. The only problem is that I was born and brought up in Yoruba language, Culture and I speak Yoruba but I don’t speak Edo. So I am not a Yoruba person. Even mother’s father was from Benin. My grandfather was sent from Benin to Yorubaland to be the ambassador of Benin Empire. Oyo Empire was usurping part of Benin Empire and my grandfather must have been a bold man for them to ask him to go and fight and protect the interest of the Edo man.
Why did your first marriage fail?
I went with my husband to the Soviet Union and we left the Children in Nigeria. We moved to Germany and America. One of the things we learned was that the children we left behind were not being taken proper care of. My husband graduated in economics from the University of Ibadan and was on Scholarship. I had wanted to study Language, but I came home and was admitted to the University of Lagos.
He came back with a white America woman who had had a son for him. He filed for a divorce, the allegation was that the last child we had was from a white man and when the child was brought to the court, he was a replica of his father. But there was no way I could force him to continue in the marriage. I was already employed at the University of Lagos, he was also employed at the same university and we were living in the same building but different floors.
The news of the divorce was popular and you know in the university, once you are divorced, you are a common commodity as many men will come to woo you and not for love but as friends and I did not want to become a pun. So I decided to take a second husband for safety purposes. I took a second husband, fortunately, I had three children from the second marriage and four from the first husband children and luckily they are all successful. But the interesting thing about them is that the six of them in Nigeria are not employed. I brought them up in Yoruba culture that whether you are a man or woman, you must work.
Psychologically, did it affect your academics, or was it something you simply waved off? When you are divorced unless you are not a human being, will you not be affected? That was not even the problem if he was employed by the University of Ibadan and I was in UNILAG that will be easier. He was employed by UNILAG and we were in the same block of buildings. He was on the fourth floor and I was on the sixth floor, which means I will be seeing him regularly; his wife was also employed by the University. I think she was in Sociology or Political department. How will I cope, I was seeing this man and his wife almost every day, will I be running away from them, No.
The first day I saw him coming down, I greeted him “Lanre how are you?” He went and reported me to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ade Ajayi, that I was embarrassing him. Why should I be greeting him when he has divorced me? The Vice Chancellor called me, he said your former husband has come to report you, let me warn you, respect that man as a senior lecturer because then he had gotten his PhD and I was a Graduate Assistant Lecturer. He said if I disturb him, he will terminate my appointment because we don’t want to lose a Senior Lecturer. It is easier to send away a graduate Assistant lecturer (laughter).
The next time I saw him coming I started running away, he went and reported me to Professor Ajayi again that I saw him and I was running away. So he told him to take one option; the next day, he started answering me. Ade Ajayi told him “You reported her and I told her not greet you and now to avoid greeting you, she must go another way, what do you want her to do? So you should leave her alone”. May God bless his memory. Amen.
So eventually, we became friends. My second husband was in Oyo State; the principal of a secondary school. Within two or three years, I had a baby and I decided to embarrass my former husband. We were wearing the same dress and the baby too, we were going to UNILAG and we saw a car parked; it was my former husband. Two of our very close friends were talking to him and I told my new husband not to say anything because I wanted to greet them. He did not know who they were. I had dated the two men, they knew us and they saw me with another man wearing the same dress, by the time I came back to my husband, the two of them came back and said “You are a bastard, why are you embarrassing us?”, and I said, “I only greeted you” (laughter). (New Telegraph)