Akinwumi Isola’s last interview with TheNEWS: We must preserve our language to retain our culture

Akinwumi Isola’s last interview with TheNEWS: We must preserve our language to retain our culture

Sunday, February 18, 2018 7:04 am


Prof Akinwunmi Isola


…Nigerian Politicians not serving the nation


In a chat with GBENRO ADESINA, erudite scholar, novelist, playwright and actor, PROFESSOR AKINWUNMI ISHOLA laments the state of the nation and also appeals for pragmatic steps for the immediate revival of the dying Yoruba Language and culture

Sir, how is life at your age?

Life is fine and interesting as you can see that I am healthy to the glory of God. I am fine but I will never rest until Yoruba language and culture is put in their position because I take very special interest in Yoruba language and languages generally. Nigerians shouldn’t forget their languages. Over years, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, has been insisting on the preservation of languages which are the centre of cultures. There are about 7,000 languages in the world and languages die when they are not spoken but if you keep speaking a language you will promote the values of the language.

We Yorubas are very lucky because we have what to sell to the world. We have what is called ‘Omoluabi’ to sell to the world and if it is imbibed, the world will be at peace because ‘omoluabi’ is all about being cultured to do only the thing that is good. I don’t know how to translate ‘Omoluabi’ to English. We have accepted standard of right and wrong. Among the Yoruba, we know what is right and wrong. For example, if somebody is fighting with your child and you discovered that your child did what was wrong to the other person fighting him or her, you will not support your child, you will punish him. That is ‘Omoluabi act. That is what culture is for everywhere. If we can uphold that standard, we can tell it to the world. ?


Is ‘omoluabi the same as ‘omo ti Noah bi’, the child born by Noah as people say?

Don’t mix Christian’s story with our culture or our religion. People are just using different means to describe ‘Omoluabi’. Omoluabi remains the concept of Yoruba which is within the contest of Yoruba. So, put Christian religion aside because we also have a good religion because all our gods and goddesses are strict on standard. If you steal something, they will say Sango, the god of iron, will kill you because they know that Sango will kill anyone that behaves badly. All the gods have their own standards.

Also read: http://thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2018/02/professor-akinwumi-isola-is-dead/
What is the relationship between the god and goddesses and supreme deity?

The supreme deity is ‘Olodumare’. All the gods and goddesses were human beings before they died but they have acceptable standard of right and wrong. When Christians came, they brought bible which they promoted and we accepted. When Muslims came, they brought Quran and we accepted it. You can’t be a good Christian or a good Muslim if you are not ‘Omoluabi’ which have high standard of good values.

What is your assessment of Yoruba language and culture today?

When God made about 7000 languages of the world, he put the languages at the centre of each culture. I am disappointed at the standard of Yoruba Language today. Our children are not speaking Yoruba. It is not the fault of those children because they are not taught the language. They are not nurtured, and brought up in the culture of Yoruba. What a child should do is in the language. The language teaches moral, and values. I stopped my grandchildren who come to visit me from Lagos from calling me grandpa, I told them to address me as ‘baba agba’. I told them that anybody in the four corners of my house must speak Yoruba because English Language is banned in my house. I had taught them Yoruba and they can speak it well. Parents should teach their children and wards Yoruba Language. My assessment now about Yoruba is very very poor. Our children are losing their identity gradually.

Now that you mentioned African Traditional Religion, do you agree with the people that it is fetish?

No, I don’t agree. When I was in UNESCO, UNESCO told us that we should not let our religion, which is part of our culture, to die. We should study and understand them. They asked us to bring a religion or culture that is dying but which we don’t want to die and the organisation would help us to revive it. Many people came up with different ideas. Some suggested taking masquerade and other things to UNESCO but I, Professor Wande Abimbola and Professor Bade Ajuwon, insisted on ‘Ifa’. We packaged it and took it to UNESCO in 2004. They were to select about 25 out of about 2000 proposals from different countries. When they read what we sent about Ifa, they were all in favour of selecting Ifa as one of the religions and cultures that must be revived. Our own, Ifa is among the religions UNESCO picked to revive. It was elevated to a culture that can’t be allowed to die. It is only in Nigeria that languages and cultures are dying, it is not dying elsewhere. India does not throw away its language and culture, Japan has revived its language, China is speaking its language. Any student from any part of the world that goes there will first learn their languages before starting academic activities because at their universities, the languages of instructions are their languages.

When you teach a student in his mother tongue, it is easy to understand. Anything can be taught in any language in the universities. We can teach all the courses in the mother tongue. We are lucky in the South West that we have only one language which is Yoruba. What UNESCO is saying is that lot of deep knowledge is being lost as a result of not speaking our own language and this must change. We must insist, we must keep speaking our language.

Prof Akinwunmi Isola

Your book, Efunsetan Aniwura, seems to have some contradictions regarding the lead character, especially about how she died as acted by Ishola Ogunsola and others. Could you clarify this?

There are about three versions of the stories of Efunsetan Aniwura. I wrote Efunsetan very long ago, when I was young. I wrote the play when I was a grade two teacher teaching in Igbogila in Egbado now Yewa part of Ogun State. I didn’t have university education then. I read about Efunsetan contained in about half a page in Akinyele’s book written in Yoruba. I didn’t read the full story of Efunsetan as documented in Iwe Itan Ibadan which has now been written in English. I didn’t know enough about Efunsetan when I wrote the book. Now, I intend to write volume two of the book to serve as an update. If you look at the whole story of Efunsetan, she was an activist and a trader who was very rich, who had big farms and many slaves just like any chief then. Latosa, who was the baale of Ibadanland then was a tough man. He was expecting too much from the chiefs but Efunsetan was not ready to heed to his demands. The revised edition that I will write will give the correct version of Efunsetan.

Are you doing a revised edition due to pressure from many quarters in Ibadan?

No, I just want to correct some mistakes in the first edition. You see, Ishola Ogunsola didn’t act Efunsetan strictly on the book I wrote. He added things that are not in the book when he acted Efunsetan for profit reason. It is so bad that a wicked person is now being referred to as Efunsetan but Efunsetan was not that bad.

Situating issues, was Efunsetan not wicked, mal-treating and killing her slaves?

Those wicked acts exhibited by Efunsetan in the book are still there. Only a few additions would change in the revision. Efunsetan in the history was not a gentle person. She was tough. Contrary to how she died in the first edition, Efunsetan didn’t kill herself but was killed by one of her slaves who smatched her head while sleeping with a big pot. Another version alleged that she was killed by her relation. Efunsetan was an Egba woman, she came from Abeokuta. She was a trader in Ibadan and became rich and got promoted among the women as Iyalode. The story of Efunsetan was totally accepted to the extent that people christened a statue in Challenge, Ibadan, Efunsetan and it is not Efunsetan’s statue.

How many of your manuscripts are yet to be published?

There are many of my manuscripts that are yet to be published but I keep writing. Now, I am writing a play titled, ‘Oore o niwon’, (Goodness has no limit) as against the Yoruba saying, ‘Oore niwon’ (Goodness has limit).

Why did you make Ajani to die in your book, ‘O le ku’?

People keep writing letters to me till today asking me why I made Ajani to die in ‘O le ku’ and my reply to them is that, that is life. There are many questions in life you can’t answer.

What is the thematic preoccupation of O le ku?

The experiences of young ones and students in general. What problem they have picking a partner either a wife or husband. The story happened here in UI. At that time, I was a member of Pirate. It is about how boys and girls relate and their parents wishing them to get married to the right persons.

If you were to re-write that book, or do a second edition just as you are proposing for Efunsetan, will it still end that way?

I am not going to re-write another O le ku. Efunsetan goes with history but O le ku is not history, just an experience. I will not re-write it for any reason. It will not happen.

Prof Akinwunmi Isola



What is your take on happenings in Nigeria?

There is a lot of money being stolen every day. We don’t know what to do. What we can say is that politicians today are stealing lots of the nation’s money. Unfortunately, the impression is being given that when they steal the money, they take it abroad to bank or invest in building hotels, houses and other big structures all over the country. They even buy houses and other property abroad. They are doing it with impunity. It is a shame. We don’t know what to do with these politicians and we are confused. If you see what commissioners, even local government chairmen have, you will marvel. They spend extravagantly. Those in offices are not transparent and accountable. They make roads but you don’t know how much they have contracted it out and they even contract out projects at inflated prices. It is terrible. Politicians are concerned about national cake rather than serving the nation. Generally, Nigeria politicians and leaders are not doing well.

When last did you wear English dress?

I don’t even know where all my English dresses are. I wear Yoruba dresses abroad. The truth is that I can’t remember the last time I wore English dress. Maybe around 1970s.

Tell me a memorable incidence that happened to you?

I graduated with 2/1 in French but it was Wesley College, Elekuro that fully sponsored my university education. That same year, an institute of Yoruba in University of Lagos, UNILAG sent out an advertisement looking for graduate assistant. About 20 applicants attended the interview out of which one person would be taken. Professor J. Ade Ajayi was the Vice Chancellor. They took the report to Professor Ajayi and he said that I came first. Two weeks later, I got an appointment letter. It became a problem because Wesley College gave me a scholarship to read English but I switched over to French and they expected me to work for them after my school. They expected me to be teaching at the school. I couldn’t go to the principal to tell him. I sought advice from people and they said I should go and tell the principal and if he didn’t allow me to go, I should accept. I eventually went to the principal and when I got there, I told him I have a problem and when he demanded to know what the problem was, I gave him the appointment letter. He looked at it, looked at me and said, “Well, if you were my own son, I will not be able to give you an advice on this. Go and think of what is right for you to do.” He said he will take the letter to the board that approved the money spent on me.

I went home but not with rest of mind. The board meeting held the following day. After the meeting, the principal sent for me. When I got there, he stretched his hand and said, “Congratulations”. He said when he got there and told them what happened, they were very mad saying that they would not release me but when the principal told them that I was going to UNILAG, they relaxed and agreed that I should go. They knew UNILAG could pay their money back so they allowed me to go without collecting their money back. I can never forget that. That was where I became a teacher under Professor Adeboye Babalola.

Sir, why do you leave your beard and mustache to grow this much. Is it a form of identity?

People ask me why I don’t shave and I ask them back, why should I shave? I am an old man, and I have a beard, what is wrong with that? What is wrong with having a beard? Some want me to even dye it but I don’t know what is wrong with it like this. It is a good beard and I like it.

• This interview was first published in TheNEWS hard copy in February 2014 when Prof Akinwumi Isola turned 74.


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