The four small stones we dredged up from the river and placed in my knapsack began to weigh me down with African history.
I had gone with Shola, a friend, and Johnson, a colleague, to the ancient Yoruba sanctuary of Osun. Located in the remnants of high primary forest in southern Nigeria and home to the white-throated monkey, the grove constitutes the only surviving Yoruba sanctuary, a place still revered by many people, and the location of an annual festival held in July.
The sanctuary is set along the meandering river of Osun and dedicated to the goddess of fertility, Osun, a central figure of Yoruba cosmology. Restored by the Austrian artist, Suzanne Wenger, it represents an important religious place for Yoruba people in Nigeria and the diaspora.
And it is with this diaspora in mind that I visited the sanctuary. Willys, a Brazilian colleague at Kwara State University where I was teaching in May 2014, had asked us to collect these stones from the river. He planned to take them to his home province of Bahia as presents to families who still worship the goddess of Osun and who feel a connection to the sanctuary. This was an astonishing discovery for me – that there exist descendants of slaves in Brazil today who remember Osun and its cosmology. This surely is proof of the indomitable human spirit.
So we delivered the stones to Willys; in his suitcase they made their own peregrination from Ilorin, to Lagos, Johannesburg, Sao Paolo, and finally arriving at Salvador da Bahia, taking part in a larger dispersion of people, faith, and material culture.
When I returned to Ilorin I picked up a book that made more connections between this area of Nigeria and Salvador da Bahia. Slave Rebellion in Brazil by João José Reis describes how in Salvador da Bahia Africans from Ilorin and surrounding regions fomented the largest slave rebellion of the Americas.
Many of these slaves were Muslim, some fluent in Arabic. Retaining knowledge of the language, they wrote down the Koran in Brazil from memory, taught it to their sons and passed it down through the generations. Unbelievably they achieved this without the knowledge of the Portuguese authorities or the plantation owners.
The rebels saw in Islam an alternative, unifying ideology that promised them freedom and envisioned a free Bahia for Africans. Some quixotically believed they would commandeer ships to take them back to what is today western Nigeria.
The insurrection broke out on Ramadan of 1834 and came to be known as the Mâle Revolt, as the Muslims of Bahia were called Mâle from the Yoruba imale, meaning a Yoruba Muslim. It was squashed by the authorities, who sought to destroy African Islam as a distinct, organized religion in Brazil. Some organizers were put to death while others were deported to Lagos. But slavery was abolished in 1851 partly because of this rebellion.
In an amazing example of turn-around, João José Reis will give presentations in October in Ilorin to an audience that will include descendants of the Yoruba Muslims who planned and partook in the rebellions.
But for me there were more links to be made. Before I left for Nigeria, Prof. Nayib Abdala, a colleague from the University of Cartagena where I taught in May 2012, suggested I read Changó. The Biggest Badass, (Changó. El gran putas) by the Afro-Colombian author, Manuel Zapata Olivella.
Little known even in Colombia, this is a difficult and challenging work, encyclopedic in its knowledge of the African diaspora and cyclopean it its ambition to represent the people of Changó, the Yoruba god of thunder, war, and sexuality. Part lyric, part epic, part novel, part ethnography, it defies the laws of genre as it also disobeys western notions of chronology.
The book proposes an Afrocentric view of the five-hundred-year experience of the African diaspora. Starting in places such as Osun, it follows the harrowing passage across the Atlantic, and the arrival of Africans in Cartagena, the entry point to the Caribbean and Latin America. Chapter Three, the “Vodou Rebellion,” chronicles the successful slave insurrection in Haiti while the subsequent chapter deals with the various wars of independence in Latin America and the leading role played in these rebellions by people of African descent. The book ends in the United States with the civil rights movement where Changó takes the form of figures like Malcolm X.
Changó. The Biggest Badass blends history and myth, the past and the present, the living and the dead, the supernatural with the natural world. As Zapata Olivella says in the Preface: “Forget about the boundaries between life and death, because in this saga you are the prisoner, the discoverer, the founder, the liberator.”
But what unites the five disparate chapters are the “African Orichas, [deities] and the dead ancestors who refuse to recognize the limits of the centuries, of geography or death.”
And this is why on every page Zapata Olivella portrays African defiance and rebellion against enslavement. When a freed slave in Cartagena is brought to the Inquisition on charges of practicing African witchcraft, he is tortured (in the chambers I had actually visited two years earlier) and burned at the stake. But he remains rebellious. And as the flames consume his body, his spirit rises up, becoming one with the “Orichas and Ancestors.” And the chapter closes with these lines:
Let no one feel himself a slave,
For the brand on his buttock,
A night in chains Does not enslave the soul.
The Brazilian recipients of our stones breathe this soul, confirming Zapata Olivella’s vision of an undying diaspora and of the inexhaustible power of Changó. And I, an outsider to this drama, could only count the ties between Ilorin and places in the Americas, each link becoming more illuminating and more hopeful.