Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon is a renowned cultural promoter and diviner. In this interview with BOLA BAMIGBOLA, he speaks about his childhood, work and sundry issues
Where and when were you born?
I was born at Oluode Aturuku Compound, Osogbo. I am a descendant of Olutimehin. Olutimehin was a co-founder of Osogbo land. My father, Pa Akinrinde Akanbi Elebuibon, was a hunter and a herbalist-diviner by profession. He had six wives of whom my mother was the youngest. My mother had three children – two boys and a girl. My immediate elder sister was an ‘abiku.’
Was there any foretelling to your parents about you and what you would eventually become before your birth?
Yes, there was. When I was about to be conceived, my mother had several miscarriages and could not conceive on time, which led to the preparation of some concoctions for her. But none of them worked for her. One day, my father decided to consult Ifa oracle, which revealed that a male child was going to be born and that he would be an Ifa priest and a cultural revivalist whose name would be known throughout the world. Ifa also said that my mother should stop using herbs. She was told to offer a sacrifice to River Osun and then fetch some water to drink. When she did all that, my mother got pregnant.
While in the womb, another divination came and my name was revealed to my parents, but this was not made known until the third day after my birth during the ‘Akosejaye’ ceremony. The then newborn baby was named Ifayemi Osundaagbonu Elebuibon.
What was your growing up experience like?
I could remember vividly that while growing up, I used to have fever. But my mother did not give me herbs; instead of that she would go to Osun River every five days to fetch water for me to drink and used it to rub my body. She would also put some drop of water right in the middle of my head. That worked like magic.
Was your birthday recorded?
No record, per se, but my mother told me I was born during the reign of a king called Timi ‘Lagunju in Ede. There was no written document to prove exactly the year I was born. Although I later made some enquiry so as to know the year Timi Lagunju assumed the throne but it did not work out. However, with the help of horoscope I was able to get my date of birth, which is July 25, 1947.
When did you start training in art and the practice of Ifa?
I started the training at age four under the tutelage of my father. One day I was able to put to practice what my father taught me when one of my friends sustained an injury and was bleeding while playing a game and people were marvelled that I could stop a bleeding with mere incantation. I also resuscitated someone that fainted with incantation. My father taught me quite a lot as a little boy. He later assigned another Ifa priest to be my master. I continued my training under my then master, Chief Faniyi Ajani, who was the Agbongbon Awo of Osogbo in his lifetime. My father passed on in February, 1957. After his death, I left my father’s house and moved into my master’s house.
Did you go to school at all?
In 1955, Chief Obafemi Awolowo introduced the Universal Free Education. That time, teachers would be moving from house to house looking for children to register in school. One day, my father was with the head of our family, known as Oluode, discussing an issue with him. I was standing not too far off, when two people arrived on the scene. My father excused himself from the meeting to attend to them. They requested for my name from my father so as to register me for school but my father declined. He claimed that his other children that went to school never returned home. He told them I was destined to be an Ifa priest. They pleaded with my father to let me attend school in the morning and then have my Ifa training by evening, but the old man objected to the idea. All my younger brothers and sisters went to school but my father did not allow me.
But how come you are able to read and write?
When I moved in with my master, we lived at Oke-Popo Catholic Mission Home, Osogbo, which was the area where Mbari Mbayo Art was situated. In my master’s house, I met three boys of my age who were in school. Every evening, when they were doing their homework, I used to watch them very closely because I loved to read and write. Watching them landed me in trouble several times because my master did not want me to have anything to do with books. Anytime he saw me writing, reading or watching them, he would beat me. But I was not deterred. Whenever my master was not around, I kept watching those attending school. Also, a friend who is now based in Ghana was of help to me too because whenever he returned from school, he would teach me what they were taught. Later, a friend, Sule Raji, advised that I should do a correspondence course. He spent the money his father had sent to him to buy books on my correspondence course. All through, I kept it away from my master and I was able to complete the course.
Did your master ever find out you could read and write?
He later got to know I could read and write. There was a man called Gabriel Odunade that used to write letters for my master. He was a tailor. He later relocated to a village near Ile-Ife and my master had several letters written to him from Ghana by one of his friends. At a point, my master became confused and was looking for another person that could read and write. Someone just mentioned my name to him. He then summoned me and asked if I could help him read letters. I said yes and he brought out the letters. I read and I assisted him to write replies to the letters. When his friend who was based in Ghana came home and requested to know who had been helping my master to reply his letters, he was told it was me. He was pleased and commended me. He gave me some good money that day. He said I was a better letter writer than the man that had previously assisted my master to write.
What was the reaction of your master when he knew you could read and write?
He didn’t say anything. I practically became the letter writer for the compound. I used to help people to record birth dates and write letters.
How long does it take one to learn Ifa?
My Ifa training spanned 10 years and six months. It may be more than that depending on how fast you can learn. The learning is continuous. But you can learn the basics in 10 years.
What did you do after your training?
February 1962 was the year when the Mbari Mbayo Cultural Centre was established by Prof. Ulli Bier, Ginas Nwoku, Wole Soyinka, Duro Ladipo and others. Ulli was a professor at the University of Ibadan in the Department of Extramural, but he did not like the atmosphere of urban centre; he preferred living in a rural area so as to know more about the indigenous setting. He left Ibadan and lived at Ilobu for a while before moving to Ede. From Ede, he came to Osogbo where he settled down. He used to attend all traditional festivals, where he would take pictures, ask questions for further research. We had all-night sessions chanting Ifa at the king’s family house. One day, the trio of Ulli Beier, Prof. Armstrong of the Institute of African Studies and Duro Ladipo attended the event. A friend of mine, who was my age-mate, and I both performed so excellently well, chanting Ifa poetry along with our seniors. Ulli Beier was so impressed and loved our performance.
Was that where you got your first international connection?
Yes, that was the turning point in my life. Ulli told Duro Ladipo that I must work with them. Duro told me that the white man said that I must work with them. Before then, each time I told people I was going to see Ulli Beier people believed I was going there to learn the art of magic. That year, Duro performed Obakoso and was emitting fire from his mouth on the stage. That made people to believe that going to work with Duro and others, I would become a magician and abandon my Ifa study. Whereas, what I was doing with Ulli and Duro was just assisting them to get poems relevant to their plays. They wanted to know the traditional songs that would go along with each scene in their plays.
What was it like working with Ulli Beier and Wole Soyinka?
I was working with Ulli to gather information. I was providing all the information he needed in both his journals and articles. At times, he would give me money to travel down to Otan to see Baba Sango and ask him about the deity. My international exposure started from that point. In 1967, I completed my Ifa study and gained freedom from my master. It pleased him to release me. When I had my freedom, Ulli was no longer around, as he used to, because he stayed in Osogbo for close to 15 years without travelling back home. I had an opportunity to continue with Duro Ladipo and we started travelling overseas for performances.
What was your first foreign trip like and where did you travel to?
We went to Festival Mundia in France in the year 1973. In 1975, we travelled to Sao Paolo in Brazil, also Bahia in same Brazil. We spent three months there. Later we moved to the United States of America, we spent another three months there also. With Ned Howard, who was our producer, we staged Obakoso in some parts of North America. We also went to Zurich and Yugoslavia.
How many countries have you travelled to so far?
They are many. I can’t begin to count them but I go to the US very often. I have been to many states in the country.
What takes you to the US so often?
I go there to lecture on African culture and philosophy. I also do consultation and perform sacrifices for those who want to. In one word, I do spiritual works.
Do you go to universities to teach students also?
Yes, I taught at San Francisco State University, United States of America. A Professor of Dance from Black Study Department and others were on a tour of Africa and they came to Nigeria. The visit coincided with our weekly drama presentation, titled, ‘Ifa Olokun, Asorodayo’ on the television in Oyo State. The professor went to the University of Ibadan and told them he wanted to see a diviner and he was directed to me. He met me in my father’s compound where I used to live in 1980, and invited me to teach in the San Francisco University for one year. Every now and then, I go to several other universities to teach.
It appears people outside Nigeria appreciate Yoruba culture and traditions better than the Yoruba themselves. Why do you think this is so?
It is because we have been brainwashed. Modernisation, civilisation and religious beliefs have made us forsake and abandon our culture and tradition. People no longer want to give their children Yoruba names; they prefer Arabic and Greek names. We have lost our identity.
But beyond being brainwashed, there are obvious things that traditionalists do that people see and get scared. Do you think that has contributed to the loss of interest?
I agreed that there are a lot of deliberate scary things that were introduced to our culture in order to scare people away. People are scared because they don’t have the full knowledge and understanding of their culture. Our Nollywood is not helping matters too.
Do you think the fear of traditionalists by a lot of people is justified?
People don’t need to be afraid. They should seek knowledge. We will be ready to assist them.
Is any of your children following in your footsteps as an Ifa priest?
I am happy with the situation now regarding my children. I am not sure of what will happen after my departure. All my children are on the right track. I have nothing to be scared of because they studied and practice Ifa too. Just like me, my children are travelling around the globe, propagating Ifa. Those that are married have not forsaken Ifa. I didn’t see the four corners of classrooms for the fear that I would abandon Ifa. But I don’t have fear my children will abandon the religion for other things in future. They have both Western Education and are all versed in Ifa.
How does the traditionalists’ community deal with the bad eggs in their fold?
It is better not to listen to them (bad eggs). Rather, do the right thing by following your beliefs. Study, learn and be familiar with your culture and tradition. All that people say about cutting of the head of a dead king, taking his heart and giving it to a new Oba to eat as part of the coronation rites, are all lies; such are not done. There is no religion that accepts human sacrifices. The act has been abolished. Those bad eggs have been engaging in barbaric acts to discredit traditional African religion. Mind you, there are evildoers in other religions too.
You are a poet, a dramatist and a diviner. Which of these do you like and enjoy the most?
I like and enjoy all of them equally. It is difficult to choose one because they are interwoven.
How many books have you written?
Between 10 to 11, so far.
What has the patronage been like?
There have been problems in terms of publications here in Nigeria. In the 1970s, the publishers used to beg us then to give them manuscripts. Onibonoje (publishers) as of then, he would come to me for manuscripts. Nowadays publishers are only interested in subjects that will bring in good money. They have no interest in cultural studies.
How has been the patronage of your books internationally?
It has been very impressive. At Saint Francisco, I used to have about 20 to 23 students in my class. All the topics taught and questions asked prompted me to write a book titled ‘Meaning of Sacrifice’. The books are better received outside the country than they are in Nigeria.
How do you relax?
Each time I plan to relax, the plan fails. But later, one of my foreign friends advised me to take pleasure with work. I preferred being outside the country to relax.
Do you regularly get people coming to learn the act and study of Ifa both in Nigeria and abroad?
Yes, we do. Presently I have two people who came from outside the country to learn. We have many people from Nigeria too.
Where do you see Ifa in the next 30 years, when you consider the fact that many people do not show interest?
It is very hard for this religion to die. It has sustenance and the only sustenance the traditional religion has is its healing power. That is its uniqueness. My only fear is that those trying to study Ifa now are not ready to pass through the numerous tests needed to have an in-depth knowledge of it. They are not ready to suffer like we did while acquiring this knowledge. Ifa will put to test the totality of a man. Your honesty and discipline will be put to test while studying Ifa.
Is it possible to be a good Christian or Muslim and still learn Ifa?
Yes, if you can follow the rules involved. In other disciplines, it is not compulsory you should have a good heart. But in Ifa, you must possess a good heart to learn and practice it.