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Olupona Returns Home To Receive Honourary Degree From OAU

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TODAY, at its 41st convocation, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife will bestow an honourary degree upon one of its most influential faculty veterans, Dr. Jacob Kehinde Olupona.

An intellectual ambassador of Nigeria and Africa, Olupona holds posts in two divisions as professor of African at Harvard University and professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School, the university’s oldest degree-granting institution.

However, Ile-Ife is where he cut his academic teeth in the professoriate, when he assumed his first scholarly post in 1976 as a young lecturer immediately after earning his bachelors degree from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and completing his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) at Kwara College of Technology, Ilorin.

Olupona is no stranger to academic recognition and honourary distinctions. He is a well-decorated scholar, having received dozens of prestigious prizes, awards and fellowships from international institutions, organisations and even governments, including those of Nigeria.

For the typical ambitious overachiever, the Nigerian National Order of Merit is enough pubic acknowledgement for a lifetime. Still, no award received thus far can eclipse the fulfillment, gratitude and pride Olupona feels when he reflects on the significance of having been selected for this honour by the first institution that recognised his scholarly promise.

“Although I have received two honourary degrees already- University of Edinburgh in 2000 and the University of Abuja a few years ago- this is the most important one to me.

“It is partly because it comes from my own people and the university where I first made my mark in the field,” he said.

There is no gainsaying Olupona’s eminence and distinguished record as a scholar, professor and public intellectual. His scholarly corpus has disrupted longstanding assumptions about African cultures as static, pre-modern, unsophisticated and irrelevant.

The most commanding and comprehensive summary of his contributions, in this respect, was issued in his 2011 monograph, City of 201 Gods: Ile-Ife in Time, Space and the Imagination, which won the 2012-2013 Harvard University Cabot Fellowship for distinguished faculty scholarship.

Therein, Olupona builds upon and departs from definitive interdisciplinary methods and theories in the humanities and social sciences to create an original “indigenous hermeneutics” for interpreting religious cultures in the Yoruba, Nigerian context.

This conceptual cache, which he brilliantly distills, can be adapted and applied to other global religious contexts.

In this endeavour, Olupona frees African religious studies from disciplinary strongholds of the Western academy, which has suffered from its uncritical veneration of enduring second-order theoretical categories in the interpretation of global religions.

Many such categories, Olupona demonstrates, are nothing but empty and unhelpful conceptual tools when deployed to interpret the sacred and other phenomena associated with African religions. Yet, not all such categories are useless.

In City of 201 Gods, Olupona brings additional conceptual depth to his earlier research on the manner in which indigenous Yoruba religion (rather than, and in spite of, Christianity and Islam) has supplied the symbols, logics, moods and motivations that enlist citizens of all religious persuasions to participate in iterations of civil religion across Nigerian Yoruba ethnic/cultural societies.

He initially laid out this theory in his first monograph, Kingship Religion and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: A Phenomenological Study of Ondo Yoruba Festivals, which won the University of Stockholm Social Science and Humanities Grant for its publication in Stockholm.

His research disputed the commonly held assumption that since the advent of Christianity and Islam to Nigeria, a triple heritage of religious co-existence and negotiation among indigenous Christian and Islamic citizens defined the nation’s religio-cultural ethos.

Olupona’s study of an Ondo Yoruba community, however, indicated that there was indeed an operative fourth religion in Nigeria that demanded further study and theorisation; a civil religion in which all citizens participated.

Moreover, that civil religion did not issue from any particular syncretisms among the three foundational religions (indigenous, Christian and Islamic).

In Ondo, it was the Yoruba indigenous religion, namely the elaborate, collective rituals surrounding sacred kingship that operated as the “sacred canopy”- the source of civil religion- for Ondo Yoruba citizens from all religious backgrounds.

This argument was and remains a watershed in studies of African religion, society and politics.

Equally influential in the classroom at Harvard, Olupona has spent the past nine years launching a new generation of scholars in the field of African and African Diaspora religious studies.

The students now earning their Ph.D. degrees under his guidance represent an intellectual sea change in the field of religion, and his investment in Harvard’s graduate students has not gone unnoticed.

In 2013, the Student Council of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences presented him with the 2013 Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award.

In the wider guild, where scholars network through professional organisations, Olupona was a pivotal agent in shaping and chairing (1994-2000) the African Religions Group (ARG), within the American Academy of Religion (AAR).

Through this space, scholars teaching in Africa, Europe and other regions of the world engage those teaching in America, collaborate on research projects and set agendas for the future of the study of African religions.

Olupona also sought additional venues in which to nurture burgeoning pools of African intellectuals in search of resources and opportunities to advance their scholarship in the field of religious studies.

He was a founding member, instrumental architect and the first coordinator of the African Association for the Study of Religion (AASR), a professional society that has a presence at the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), the American Academy of Religion, and other global religious studies organisations, but finds its organic theater of operations across the African continent.

Launched in 1992, the AASR has fostered international collaboration among African religious studies scholars toward the end of empowering African scholars and enhancing their reputations and influence in the field of religion.

Olupona has extended far too many acts of kindness, of academic citizenship and legacy building to be discussed adequately here.

He is constantly passing along opportunities to disseminate his African religious studies research to assistant and associate professors, many of who are more distanced from the powerbrokers and decision-makers in the most esteemed religious studies fora.

For instance, in 2012, he secured a book series, titled, Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People at the prestigious Duke University Press and selected a mid-career and junior scholar to serve as co-editors.

On another occasion, he received a substantial award from Harvard University.

The award guidelines allowed him to retain the monies as a salary supplement or disbursed to fund a postdoctoral research fellowship for an outside scholar.

Olupona went with the second option and funded a female associate professor of West African religious traditions to assume a semester-long postdoctoral position at Harvard Divinity School.

His deliberate efforts to mentor and create room for women scholars to wield authority and gain recognition in the professoriate are laudable, especially at a time when the academy still reserves the most laudable and comfortable spaces of prestige and visibility for male colleagues.

Many of Olupona’s colleagues and students can testify not only about quality of his mind, but also about the quality of his heart, his impeccable attributes and ethical character.

The very fact that this scholar, who is still quite young in his senior years, has managed to inspire not one, but three festschrift volumes in his honour is further confirmation of the genuine respect and appreciation his former students feel for all he has done to support them and to solidify a future for African religious studies.

The international reach of the volumes also indicates the global extend of his influence.

One volume was published in Europe (2012), the second in Nigeria (2015) and the third by Drs. Elias Bongmba and Segun Ilesanmi and will be published in America.

Olupona’s familiar roots stretch back to Ute and Oke-Igbo, Ondo State, but this accomplished offspring of the Venerable Michael and Mrs. Henrietta Olupona has set down other roots as well.

From Ife to UC Davis (California), to Harvard (Boston), he has indeed “made his mark” as a scholar, teacher, mentor and public intellectual.

And we are proud to welcome him once again, on our home territory, to receive yet another well-deserved honour.

• Stewart is an Associate Professor of Religion and African American Studies Emory University, Atlanta, United States


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