Inside Africa's Fascinating Region of Yorubaland
"Hey this is gonna be at most a 6 mins read, so kick back, relax, get yourself a cup of camomile tea (lemon and ginger for the OGs) and dive in."
Born in Nigeria, photographer Anthony Shintai Olabayo Amao is a visual artist whose passion for photography and film-making sees its initial roots in street culture. He first found his enthusiasm for this through his involvement with skateboarding and Hip-Hop but found himself seeking to rediscover his roots and family history which is how he came to this project YORUBALAND. Shintai bares all behind his vision in a personal account of his project...
I’ve spent a lot of my time learning about my family history, seeking knowledge about the spiritual traditions of my ancestors. My family belongs to the Yoruba ethnic group originating from West Africa. We were all born and raised in Nigeria but now settled in the UK. One of the reasons why we chose to relocate was due to the level of corruption in the Nigerian political system (this is still an on-going issue ...but we’ll save this topic for another book). Government members were known for keeping millions of public funding for personal use, money which was intended for infrastructure development, education, and community development that the country desperately needed and still does. Despite the failures of the government, my childhood in Nigeria was a wondrous experience. The country has a lively energetic atmosphere fuelled by the abundance of soulful beings.
Christianity is now the second-ranked religion in Nigeria, mostly followed by Yoruba people. The Yoruba people are known for having a strong faith in their religious choice. It’s not surprising that Nigeria has the largest Christian population of any country in Africa, in a country of a hundred and ninety-five million people, an estimated forty-nine per cent of the population are Christians. My curiosity regarding our religious choice sparked when we were settled in the UK. I was researching about the Yoruba culture and discovered a deity named Sango. Sango is the Orisha (deity) of thunder and lightning in the traditional Yoruba religion, the third king of Oyo Kingdom in Nigeria, a royal ancestor of the Yorùbá and he’s one of the most worshipped gods all over the world. I was fascinated by this deity.
Thanks to my fascination with Sángo, I was able to discover the true essence of the Yoruba religion. It felt amazing to learn about the values, life philosophy, and respect for nature the Yoruba religion sustains yet I found it strange why the traditional religion isn’t widely recognised and appreciated amongst the Yoruba people. When I was growing up in Nigeria, I was conditioned to believe any form of worship associated with the traditional belief system was a form of witchcraft hence why I avoided the traditional religion. But having developed a different perspective on the subject, I wanted to find out where the narrative I was fed originated from. Fifty-four opened tabs later, I found out how the Yoruba people were one of the first groups in West Africa to be introduced to Christianity on a large scale. Anna Martin Hinderer was a missionary who worked for the British missionary society in the 19th Century. In her book titled ‘Seventeen Years in the Yoruba Country’, she writes “the gradual suppression of the slave trade opened the way, in 1843, for the preaching of the gospel to the inhabitants of this country”. The British missionaries built thousands of churches converting the Yoruba people into Christianity. Their motivation in converting the Yoruba people was because they believed the traditional religion was “laden with foolish and cruel superstitions”. Like most traditions that fall outside dominants western religions, the Yoruba religion has been overlooked and feared.
When I questioned my parents on how we became Christians, I was informed that our ancestors did practice the traditional religion until the British missionaries came into the land and converted them into Christianity. My ancestors were taught to believe that if they converted to Christianity, they would stand a better chance in securing administrative jobs which paid a lot when controlled by the British. My late great grandfather changed the last name of our family into a British name ‘Williams’ because he thought this would improve the chances of our family being successful candidates during the hiring process. Thankfully my late grandfather restored the family name into a Yoruba traditional name, the third name of his father ‘Amao’. He made it clear that we shouldn’t bear a name that has no significance to the family, we shouldn’t sacrifice our heritage for the cost of appearing as a ‘better-suited candidate’ on a piece of paper (R.I.P to a great one).
Some anthropologists believe the Yoruba religion has been practised as far back as eight thousand years making it truly primal and aboriginal - to put this into perspective Christianity has said to be around for only two thousand years. The Yoruba indigenous beliefs see the world as a product of two connected worlds. The visible material world and the invisible spiritual world. The connection between these two worlds produces power that is called Asé. Similar to Chi in Chinese traditions or the energy that flows through Chakras in Indian beliefs. Asé is the divine force, energy, and power from the creator that incarnate in the world. It is the life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate in the universe. It is recognised as the power to create and produce change which enables people to find balance in life. Asé is an affirmation that is used in greetings and prayers, as well as a concept of spiritual growth. These indigenous beliefs and practices are a source of life philosophy and natural science, revealing how human beings can be in harmony with the energies of nature and the universe. It is the foundation for understanding the beginning and end of life.
“The African soul was not extinguished but simply transfigured to meet the Euro-social pressures under New World bondage.” Baba Ifa Karade
Following the Yoruba religion reveals the spiritual practice of working in a loving relationship with our ancestors. It is a monotheistic tradition that recognises one Olodumare (God) who speaks and works on Earth through the Orisha. As there are saints in Christianity, walī in Islam and Arhat in Buddhism - there are Orisha in the Yoruba religion. The Orisha are recognised as heroes within the Yoruba society because they have accomplished great things which others couldn’t. Orisha means those who have been destined to add prosperity into society. The Orisha were kings, queens, inventors, social critics, philosophers, political figures, warriors, and founders of cities who had a major influence on the lives of the Yoruba people and Yoruba society through their contributions to technology, culture, politics and social life. They have a mixture of good characteristics and bad, they challenge us not to be perfect but to balance our bad habits with good.
Despite the efforts from the British missionaries to suppress the traditional religion in Yorubaland, it found a way through to the western world. The Yoruba people were one of the largest ethnic groups brought into the western world via the Atlantic Slave trade, up to 75 million human beings were taken from everything they knew and made to serve strange masters in a New World. This led to the Yoruba religion transported to the United States, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Trinidad, Guyana, Haiti, and other South American/Caribbean countries. Enslaved Yorùbá people were severely punished for practising their traditional spiritual belief systems but they adapted to this difficult circumstance with courage and creativity. To keep their obedience to their ‘master’ whilst still being loyal to the call of the spirit, they either had to mask them or merge them with the religion of their plantation owner. A fusion of African Spirituality and Christianity/Catholicism led to distinct new practices. Today, as many as 100 million people worldwide practice some version of the tradition: Yoruba (Nigeria and the United States) Sateria (Cuban, syncretized with Catholicism), Yorùbá-Lukimi (Afro-Cuban, non-syncretized), Candomble (Brazil), Shango Baptist (Trinidad) and Ifa priesthood (Nigeria and the Americas).
Learning about the traditional Yoruba religion made me feel closer to my ancestors, it felt wholesome to learn about their way of life. After immersing myself in hundreds of articles about the traditional religion, I began to yearn for an experience. To progress within spirituality and religious practices, the best way to truly learn is through experience. Luckily in one of my fifty-four opened tabs, I came across the Sángo Festival. The Sángo Festival is an annual festival that celebrates the traditional belief system in Oyo Town, Nigeria, which also happens to be the town my ancestors are from. I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by so I decided to travel back home for the festival to experience the traditional religion.
The two weeks I spent in Oyo Town has been an enlightening experience. It was thrilling to take part in the cultural celebrations on the streets of Oyo Town as my ancestors once did, but this experience has also revealed a major problem with the town waste management. Thousands of plastic waste abandoned across the land and no one is doing anything to clean it up. Poorly controlled and dumping of wastes across the town not only degrade the beauty of the environment but also pollutes soil and water resources that are desperately needed by the people. It’s evident once the resources of the land have been extracted, the people are neglected and left with nothing. With its vast range of resources and agriculture, the rural areas have and still contributes an enormous amount of wealth to Nigeria. The wealth of the land should be shared equally with the people of the land.
“If Nigeria is to attain real development, western-educated Nigerian scholars must embrace the inherited body of indigenous knowledge with their basic ideas, beliefs as well as principles, theories and technical skills to create new ones and integrate viably imported ones with them for the country’s growth.” - Prof. Sophie Oluwole
Nigeria has one of the worlds highest economic growth rates but the country is now the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, with an estimated 112 million Nigerians (69% of the total population) to be living on less than £1.50 equivalent to 80% of the people being from the rural areas. Nigeria has earned roughly £147 Billion (70 Trillion Naira) from oil exports alone within the last 10 years yet the share of Nigerians living below the poverty line increased from 69 million in 2004 to 112 million in 2010, in the same period the number of millionaires increased by approximately 44%. The amount of money that the richest Nigerian man can earn annually from his wealth is sufficient to lift 2 million people out of poverty for one year. Lifting all Nigerian people living below the extreme poverty line of £1.50 out of poverty for one year will cost about £19 billion. This amount of money is just lower than the total wealth owned overall by the five richest Nigerians in 2016, which was equal to £23 billion (Oxfam).
It’s evident now that a majority of the Nigerian are trapped in poverty because of the failure of successive governments to manage the country’s enormous wealth effectively. Unequal opportunities for education, employment, and participation severely limit the people. Poverty and inequality in Nigeria are not due to lack of resources, but to the ill-use and misappropriation of such resources. At the root there is a culture of corruption and rent-seeking combined with a political elite out of touch with the daily struggles of the citizen. If Nigeria continues to follow the unethical practices of the west, we are disinheriting our core values which developed our philosophies that rewarded our society pre-colonial era. Our ancestors had an eco-sustainable way of life, they ensured the land was fertile so that the next generation would receive an abundance of crops from the land. A selfless act of love and care.
My mission with this project is to implement a system to sustain the beauty and care of the land by supplying the vital resources to the neglected communities across Yorùbáland. Whatever talent, skill or knowledge you possess, you can contribute this to add value to your local community back home.
“No matter how far a river flows, it never forgets its source.” - A Yoruba wise saying
You can purchase Anthony's photo-book where all earnings will be donated to the Africa Cleanup Initiative and the local communities of Oyo Town. The African Cleanup Initiative is a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Nigeria, their mission is to inspire and engage citizens of communities in Africa to be committed to environmental sustainability through environmental clean-up projects, education and advocacy programs. To find out more about the Africa Cleanup Initiative, check out their website.