UNESCO and Nigeria’s Ifa divination system: Revisiting Akinwumi Ishola’s impact
The transition, last weekend, of the renowned linguist, playwright and novelist, culture activist, multi-talented actor, filmmaker and erudite scholar, Professor Akinwumi Ishola has continued to provoke deluge of eulogies from the arts and culture community with emphasis on his contribution to the promotion and preservation of the Yoruba rich cultural heritage.
One important legacy where his service would remain evergreen was the endorsement of Nigeria’s Ifa Divination System, as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on November 25, 2005.
The task of preparing the candidature of Ifa as Nigeria’s entry for the UNESCO’s third proclamation exercise, which began in February 2004 and peaked on November 25, 2005, was co-ordinated by the renowned researcher.
In an exclusive interview with KABIR ALABI GARBA published in The Guardian of Friday, December 23, 2005 (pages 30, 36, 37), Prof. Ishola had declared the 21-month exercise “strenuous but worthwhile.” The interview with the headline: “UNESCO And Nigeria’s Ifa Divination System: The Whole Story” is hereby reproduced as tribute to the late scholar.
THE journey of the proclamation of Ifa Divination System in Nigeria on November 25 could be traced from 1972 when UNESCO decided to promote cultural heritage. But since then, focus had been on the material aspect of the culture… I should begin by saying UNESCO wanted to safeguard cultural heritage — tangible and intangible.
By tangible, reference is being made to those aspects that have physical form. In this regard, we are talking about our literature, language, folktales, proverbs, songs and poems among others.
The 1972 Convention of UNESCO on world cultural and natural heritage clearly identified monuments, sites and landscapes of outstanding values for the whole of humanity. And they decided to inscribe them on the World Heritage List.
That Convention, which established the world heritage list, was not applicable to intangible cultural heritage. It is a list that accommodates monuments, sites and outstanding structures that have something to do with heritage and culture.
But what we in Africa, the third world, have is more of the intangible, i.e. our oral intangible heritage such as songs, dances, poems, language. It appeared that they were short-listing the third world, especially Africa. We do not have enough of monuments and sites. But we have a lot of the intangible.
Platform for intangible heritage
UNESCO wanted another convention in 2003 I think, it was the convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage. After that, there was another proclamation. A convention is different from a proclamation. The latter is not as strong and all embracing as the former.
But to balance the world heritage list, UNESCO, therefore, had these masterpieces. There was a proclamation of masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage. They started in 2001.
November edition (2005) is the third and the last one. No more proclamation, but there is going to be convention that will now ensure that our cultural heritage does not perish.
Basically, there are three things: First, is the World Heritage List, which is about recognising monuments and sites. But the argument, especially by Africa was that the list is more in favour of the first world … Europeans and others. To balance that, UNESCO then had another proclamation of masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. The aim of that was to recognise what we have more in Africa.
States were required to submit candidature files. It is like an application where you describe what you have and send it to UNESCO. They will look at it and see whether it is actually a masterpiece. They had two such exercises before and Nigeria had never submitted any application, any candidature file. When the convention of safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage was instituted to ensure that this heritage does not disappear, I represented Nigeria at the convention in 2003.
At the meeting, UNESCO decided to have one more proclamation of the masterpiece of the oral and intangible materials. They had had two before and Nigeria had never submitted any application, so, from then on, the Nigerian National Commission for UNESCO send a letter dated February 26, 2004, asking me to submit, in August 2004, a candidature file for Nigeria. We had to submit it in 2004 and actually we did submit it in 2004.
How it all started
The secretary general of the commission, M.Y. Katagun (Mrs.) wrote the letter to me. This was because I represented Nigeria at the convention. Ordinarily, a national committee should have been inaugurated for this kind of thing. But we had not had it by the time the letter was written to me.
Soon after, the Culture and Tourism Minister, Frank Ogbuewu wrote another letter to me asking me to prepare a candidature file for Nigeria’s submission to UNESCO so that we could also have a masterpiece. Latter, the minister sent Ms. O. Nehonwa who is assistant director in charge of UNESCO at the ministry to me.
She came to meet me at the University of Ibadan, Department of Linguistics. We discussed about what we could do, but the time was very short.
The requirement from UNESCO emphasised the aspect of culture a masterpiece — something that has been well studied, well researched and very well known….
Between Gelede and Ifa
Therefore, we started thinking about the aspect of culture in Nigeria that could be strong enough to win as a masterpiece. We thought about many cultural aspects such as Ijala, Gelede among others.
On Gelede, which is very strong in Nigeria, we later realised that it had been taken to UNESCO by the Benin Republic and had in the previous exercise, won as a masterpiece.
Nigeria could have taken Gelede to UNESCO, but we didn’t at that time. I now thought that the other thing that we could take to UNESCO that could win, would be the Ifa divination system.
I told Ms. Nehonwa that I would suggest that Nigeria present Ifa divination system. She left. And I wrote a letter to the minister telling him what precisely we should do. I also told him that we had to do something fast.
The choice was based on the conviction that Ifa divination system has been very well documented. Many books had been written and it would not be too difficult to make a good case for it.
Detail of UNESCO requirements
The organisation wanted us to submit:
• Write-up on our chosen entry — Ifa divination system.
• Documentation of the maps, photographs, audiovisual and so on. I know we could do that;
• Scientific bibliography, the academic tradition, which entails listing all the books, publications, articles written by scholars all over the world about the entry. We got about 50 items on our bibliography; and
• Professional-quality digital video documentation.
In the original instruction, UNESCO wanted us to have a video documentations of about 10 minutes, this was later changed to two hour. I then wrote to the culture minister that it was difficult task because the time was short. Having a two-hour video documentation of Ifa divination system was difficult.
You first have to write the script, then look for the Babalawos all over Yorubaland, rehearse them, tell them exactly what you want and then start a good quality digital video recording.
Gathering materials on the candidature
But fortunately, Professor Wande Abimbola was then the Culture Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo. I was so glad. I told the minister that I had suggested that we should submit file on Ifa Divination system and luckily for us the greatest expert on Ifa ‘is very near you there at Abuja, is the adviser to the president on culture.’ I asked the minister to go to Wande Abimbola and tell him what we have to do very quickly.
I called Wande myself and I said ‘there is a job for all of us here.’ He was so delighted. Actually, but for him, perhaps, we would have missed the opportunity again, because he had to look for the money.
We needed about N3million to make a digital professional quality video film of Ifa. He borrowed the money because the ministry said they did not have money at that time.
If it was left to me alone, I did not have N3million, I couldn’t have done anything. But Wande looked for the money. And being Babalawo himself, he is the most qualified person in Nigeria today, to supply required information on the, masterpiece. Not only that, he looked for other Babalawos who could do the job too.
Tunde Kelani connection
Thereafter, I contacted the best cameraman for digital video now in Nigeria that I know, Tunde Kelani, of Mainframe. I told him we did not have any money, but we wanted to do something quickly, it was very urgent too. He agreed to do it even when we didn’t have money to give him. We then planned everything. I wrote the script. I went to Wande, he too came to me in Ibadan. We talked about it and we decided to have the location at Oyo.
First because of Wande Abimbola’s facility. He is an Oyo person, he has houses there, and we also have very reputable, skilled, proficient Babalawos at Oyo and all of them know Wande Abimbola.
We thought, because we did not have the time to be going around every Yoruba city, and moreso, we could get all we need here, it is just an application. So, we went to Oyo, talked to the people, recorded ceremonies, chanting, performances and so on.
When we got what we wanted on digital video. Tunde Kelani set for work for the editing and packaging of the thing. I had to do the voice-over explaining what was going on.
We also had the other side of documentation. We had to take maps, photographs, slides and audio-visual recording. It was very tedious. We looked for cartographers, made maps to illustrate the spread of Ifa allover the world beginning from Nigeria to other West African countries… we got many photographs to accompany our submission.
Co-opting Bade Ajuwon
Later, I prepared the scientific bibliography in the academic tradition. However, we were able to do all that, and when the work was almost too much for us, we had to co-opt our colleague at (the Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife, Professor Bade Ajuwon who also knows a lot about Ifa Divination system.
He came to us at Oyo where we were doing the work and we id the preparation together. We were able to submit the entry in year 2004.
The original date of submission… was to be August 31, 2004, but later extended till the end of November… anyway we were able submit it and meet the deadline.
Feedback from UNESCO
When we submitted it, it was acknowledged, but UNESCO later discovered that we had a lot of inadequate documentation for submission. They said, ‘having carefully examined the administrative aspect of the file, we have noted that some items required in the candidature standard form of the guide for the presentation of candidature file, contained in the circular letter… hereby attached, are missing or need further clarification.
Before sending the file to the competent non-governmental organisation to be entrusted to undertake the technical and scientific evaluation. I would be most grateful, if you could provide me with the following information as indicated in the marked items of the checklist candidature standard form.
So, we had to go all over again looking at what we were now told to either clarify further or look for new facts.
Second round experiment
Honestly, when I received that memo from UNESCO, I was discouraged. I said, ‘ well, we would never be able to submit this file.’ At that time, Wande who was there when we were preparing the file had left for the U.S.A. Bade Ajuwon was there, but he was heavily engaged.