Yoruba cultural nationalism
Written by Diran Apata Sunday, 22 December 2013
A few days ago, in a leisurely discussion involving many Yoruba men, women and children, I mentioned the movement of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism of about one-hundred years ago. Most of my hearers had no idea what I was talking about. That is what always happens whenever I happen to mention this movement. It is painful that our people, especially our youths, know nothing about it – painful because the story of the Yoruba Cultural Nationalist Movement, spanning the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th,is one of the most glorious stories in the modern history of the Yoruba Nation. It is a story that we should all know inside and out – a story that our children should be told over and over at home and at school.
The following is the background to it. From about 1885, various European countries came scrambling for territorial empires all over Africa. Peoples after peoples of Africa fell to the European forces. The British, the French, the Germans, the Portuguese, the Belgians, the Dutch, all carved out empires for themselves. Most of Yorubaland became British possession (later to be included in Nigeria), and the rest became French and German possessions (later to be included in what are now Benin and Togo Republics).
But the conquest of Africa was not only military and territorial; it was also massively psychological. Usually, small European armies were taking over African territories, because they were armed with better weapons, or because the African nations were not fully aware about what was happening to them, and because they did not unite to defend their homelands. Naturally, the European colonialists became enormously arrogant. Everywhere, they proclaimed the doctrine that Africans were culturally and intellectually inferior to Europeans, that Africans were incapable of developing any civilisation, and that it was the duty of Europeans to bring civilisation to Africans.
These attitudes gradually infected all aspects of European relationships with Africans all over tropical Africa. The growing disrespect of Africans even spread into the Christian missions. In the mission churches and schools, it was now being said that, to become a Christian, or to be regarded as educated or civilised, one must give up one's native culture. One must give up such things as one's indigenous name, clothing, manners, and language, and take on European ones. Even the Yoruba clergy working in the missions began to experience serious disrespect and discrimination from the mission bodies that they served.
For a start, some Yoruba Christian converts in Lagos did respond by trying to become "black Europeans". They hoped that doing so would earn them acceptance into the "civilised" British community in Lagos. Many of these changed their names to European names. Some others adopted European dress items such as the stove-pipe hat, the feathered bonnet, high-heeled shoes, and gloves, etc. Some young persons who went to study in Britain returned home in only two or three years and claimed that they could no longer understand or speak the Yoruba language.
However, a powerful Yoruba reaction to all these rapidly brewed, and it soon became a great movement – the movement of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism. As it grew, most of those who had adopted aspects of European culture gave them up and returned to their Yoruba culture. There had been newspapers in Lagos for decades, and these newspapers joined excitedly in the movement. "We are Africans first (or we are Yoruba first) before we are Christians" became popular among Christians in Lagos.
This movement of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism produced very many effects. In popular culture and fashions, Yoruba Cultural Nationalism promoted a great pride in Yoruba clothes and dresses. The Yoruba way of dressing became very popular indeed. It became more attractive as new styles and modifications were added.
Yoruba men and women serving in the Lagos colonial service responded in their own way. Many of them resigned their jobs and started private businesses, schools and churches of their own.
In the Christian missions, the Yoruba clergy responded by introducing Yoruba culture into church services and church life. For instance, they introduced Yoruba music and songs, which the missions had earlier regarded as pagan. Some of the Yoruba clergy even went further than that. They withdrew from the service of the European mission organizations and started an African Church Movement. This created separate African churches in the various denominations - African Anglican churches, African Methodist churches, and African Baptist churches. The African churches brought Yoruba culture into the Christian church in a big way. They also wrote Yoruba hymns and published hymn books. But another movement soon started which went even further than the African Church Movement to integrate Yoruba culture into Christianity. This was the Aladura Movement. The Aladura Movement developed into a number of main branches – the Christ Apostolic Church, the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, and the Celestial Church of Christ.
Yoruba Cultural Nationalism also promoted a lot of interest in the study of Yoruba culture and history. Many books were written in these years on both subjects. And many literate Yoruba people wrote the traditional stories of their towns – some in English, and many in the Yoruba language. Lessons in Yoruba history and culture were introduced into schools, including the mission schools.
Yoruba Cultural Nationalism created a powerful Yoruba national consciousness. It unified the modern Yoruba elite for service to their nation. That unity was to express itself in many productive ways later – in the various Development Associations of the 1920s and 1930s, in the highly influential Egbe Omo Oduduwa from 1945, and in the first-rate government of the Western Region in the 1950s. It also charted great modern ambitions for the Yoruba nation – ambitions to acquire education, and to achieve modern economic progress, prosperity and power in the world. In these many ways, the movement of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism laid some of the foundations for Yoruba achievements and progress in the modern world.
All in all, Yoruba people did not merely challenge European cultural arrogance; they suppressed it quite successfully in their own country. Nowhere else in Black Africa, among no other Black African nation, did the Europeans experience another powerful cultural challenge like this.
A British colonial official who served for years in Nigeria in the 1950s testified to the later-day effects of Yoruba Cultural Nationalism. He wrote in his memoir that, in his experience, the Yoruba were one African people who never treated the British, or any other Europeans, as superiors or "as gods". He wrote that the Yoruba are a people with "personal dignity and political finesse". "In my experience" he added, "the Yoruba regarded themselves as superior to the British - - -. The Yoruba were often highly intelligent and they taunted the British with sending inferior people to Nigeria." He also added that many other Nigerian peoples could usually not look the white man in the eyes, but that even the lowliest Yoruba servant tended to carry himself with confidence and pride.
Read 19 times
Published in Diran Apata's Sunday message
Sent from my BlackBerry wireless device from MTN