Omoluabi: The heart and soul of being human
The passing of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, (1925-2016) fondly known as Kabiyesi by his friends and associates has given an opportunity to revisit and reflect on the importance of the concept of omoluabi within the Yoruba social, cultural, philosophical, and religious worldview. I have read most of the tributes and requiems for Baba. All of them testify to his character, temperament, and sensibilities. He exemplified and embodied some of the essential traits of a quintessential omoluabi. He was a renaissance man and he was a rebel with a cause. He bequeathed to the Yoruba race an alluring sense of grace and dignity.
He was a public intellectual, devoted churchman, elder statesman, consummate legal practitioner, passionate federalist, ardent conciliator, and an indomitable rock of the progressive tradition of Yoruba politics. My esteemed mwalimu in the academic study of religion (religionswissenschaft), Jacob Olupona said this about him: “More than any other person I know in his generation, he commanded tremendous respect and love among my peers and colleagues. Indeed, he embodied the spirit of inspiration and hope for the new Nigeria we are all still hoping for.” It seems to me that his life provides a unique opportunity to ponder on the Yoruba paradigm and perspective on personal character and moral virtues.
A cursory look at the Nigerian landscape reveals that it is confronted with a plethora of challenges. Concerning these perplexing problems, Yoruba people will say that: Melo la fe ka ninu eyin adepele: meaning that these problems are legion, interwoven, and intricate. In his reflection on the fundamental challenge confronting the Nigerian state and society, Bolaji Idowu, a doyen of the Methodist Church of Nigeria once remarked that: “We are finding ourselves today in a world in which things, rather than persons, matter, where ‘efficiency’ is being regarded as of more importance than personal character, and where human beings are being seen as mere functions of the world.” This remark bemoans the instrumentalist understanding of humanity. Apart from this perennial assault on a wholesome understanding of being human; we can say that certain forces such as globalisation, unfettered individualism, toxic ambition, and nonchalant attitude continue to undermine some of the social, cultural, and religious norms that have traditionally contributed to people’s well-being and wholeness.
We have been inexorably ushered into a brave new world in which external variables such as power, wealth, and social status have triumphed, and in some cases eroded the cultivation of personal virtues and moral goodness. Nonetheless, it is gratifying to note that many well-meaning Nigerians ranging from artists, public intellectuals, political, and religious leaders have offered remarkable insights into the relevance and raison d’etre of omoluabi in the Nigerian social space and civic life. It does not mean that these people have the perfect panacea to the country’s condition; but they have sensitised the nation to the crucial need to craft new narratives and models to move it forward.
They all agree that along the line, something has ominously gone wrong. It sounds like a confessional time within the country. It is time to acknowledge our missteps as a nation and chart a new course. Mahatma Ghandi once remarked that: “Confession of errors is like a broom which sweeps away dirt and leaves the surface brighter and cleaner.” An African proverb also rightly states that “If you close your eyes to the facts, you learn through accidents.” My thesis in this short article is that by reclaiming some of the virtues of omoluabi, many ills of our broken world can be ameliorated. I argue that human beings who act out of compassion, altruism, empathy, and love are contributors to the moral good of humanity and community.
In the study of religion and culture, there is a universal affirmation of the cultivation and practice of good character. It is the crimson thread that runs through world religions. This is an enduring theme that straddles the boundaries of being and non-being. It is one of the perplexing paradoxes of human existence which Thomas Hobbes has described as “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The task of maintaining an ontological balance between the two competing claims of being and non-being continues to feature prominently in philosophical and theological discussions. The central point of my reflection is to identify some of the fundamental contributions of the concept of omoluabi to the overall human flourishing and wholeness of Yoruba societies. This is an urgent task with the Nigerian body polity. Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked that: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’” We don’t want the story of the Yoruba race to be analogous to the proverbial case of Omoye who shamelessly ran naked into the market square; alas, it was too late to put any clothing on her!
The Yoruba principle of omoluabi valorizes virtues such as honesty, sound character, diligence, loyalty, decorum, wisdom, and self-restraint. Baba Adebayo Faleti described an omoluabi as a gentleman. This perspective resonates with what Confucius described as a Chuntzu (ideal man) and Aristole’s notion of a magnanimous man. The principle of omoluabi also enjoins people to deeply think about the consequences of their actions for eni ti ko fe wo akisa, kii ba aja se ere e gele—if you don’t want to end up in tatters, don’t play rough with a dog. This saying underscores the fact that actions have their karmic consequences.
I need to emphasize that it is important to reclaim and salvage some of the cultural virtues and etiquettes within the Yoruba society in particular and in the entire Nigerian nation as a whole. We don’t need the United Nations Education and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to tell us this. This should be considered a non-negotiable aspect of our humanity and sense of being. Isn’t it true that a river that forgets its source will run dry? This rhetorical musing affirms the urgency of cultural and ethical repositioning in Nigeria, especially among the Yoruba. The need to uphold some life-affirming principles in any society is both paramount and essential. I vividly recall my family’s visit to the Vatican in the summer of 2015.
During the exciting and tortuous tour of Vatican’s massive complex, I could not but marvel at how the Catholic Church decided to preserve some of the impressive artworks, sculptures, relics, and paintings from Roman antiquity. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the Church to preserve some of the salient elements that will contribute to the integrity, story, and authenticity of the Christian faith. This was not simplistic syncretism; rather, it was an effort in creative contextualisation and pragmatism.
I will conclude by affirming that change in any society is not actualised by mere rhetoric and pontification. Rather, it requires conscious actions and implementation. It involves structured orthopraxy and pragmatic programming. Change is not actualised by mere empty and abstract talk, but by concrete actions. You learn how to cut down tree by actually cutting it down. Transformation starts with embracing personal responsibilities. Abo oro la n so fun omoluabi… a word they say is enough for the wise!
• Akinade is a Professor of Theology at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.