Ajayi Crowther and the roots of “Yorubentity”

Ajayi Crowther and the roots of “Yorubentity”

Sunday, October 2, 2016 8:53 am

Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Mai Nasara

“Historically ‘Yoruba’ was a term used to describe certain people from a corner of West Africa by outsiders. It was Samuel Crowther who, in a response to the turmoil caused by the slave
trade, brought together several regional dialects into one language called ‘Yoruba’ and so laid the foundations of a new national identity.

Crowther is the Father of the Yoruba

By AD 1000, the ancient city of Ile- Ife in what is now southwest Nigeria had risen to become a major city-state covering an area about the size of England (present-day: southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo). It was the spiritual home, providing common cultural and genealogical heritage, to several ‘tribes’: the Oyo (by far the largest), Sabe, Ketu, Egbado, Ijebu, Ondo, Ikale, Ijesha, Akoko, Bunu, Yagba, Ekiti and Igbomina.

In a 16th century treatise, Ahmed Baba, a scholar from the Songhai people, yoked the Oyo and
the Yagba to form a single term: ‘Yoruba’. It is the earliest recorded use of the word. It was taken up by the Hausa people of what is now northern Nigeria to refer to their southern neighbours, and with the Muslim influence among the Hausa, it began to be used by Arab travellers. The separate tribes themselves never thought of themselves as Yoruba.

When Samuel Crowther arrived in Sierra Leone, he found many other ex-slaves from his region
there too. Eventually he set out to translate the Bible and Prayerbook into a language which they would understand. So he pioneered bringing together the separate dialects into one codified
‘Yoruba’ language, complete with dictionary and grammar book. With a united language, came a united people.

It was the missionaries who began to talk of ‘the Yoruba people’. It was through this influence under the powerful unifying force of Crowther’s single Yoruba language that the people came to think of themselves as part of one distinctive culture.

How did Crowther’s missionaries convince the Yoruba to move from the religion of their fathers
and embrace Christ? It would be entirely wrong to think of the West Africa missionaries as imposing their faith on a quiescent culture in a battle of wills, or via coercion or subtle blackmailing. That would be to miss the essential fact of Crowther’s whole life: he was a Yoruba who consciously underwent a spiritual transformation amid massive cultural changes, and embraced the new identity this gave him. The overwhelming number of missionaries
evangelising the Yoruba region were just the same: people who wanted to show their fellow countrymen and -women that there was a vital, life-giving spiritual analogue to the cultural transformation they were living through.

A fresh identity in Christ became, in a [profound] sense, the fulfilment of the Yoruba historical destiny.

At Crowther’s birth, a tribal diviner had forbidden that the boy enter any of the local deity cults
because he would grow up to be a servant of Olorun, the God of Heaven. This story illustrates
how Christians … easily [developed] the traditional belief system already based around this Supreme Being.

The sticking point was the veneration of the orisa – the local ancestors who were also heroes
and gods. Interaction with the orisa formed the backbone of daily Yoruba life, and this social
aspect of religion was less easily adapted. JDY Peel in “Religious Encounter and the Making
of the Yoruba” describes how the missionaries engaged with the old religion. They encouraged
the view that the orisa were simply great individuals who had done deeds so outstanding that,
with time, they became held up as gods. They presented this as a decline from a previously
higher form of religion, one without such base misunderstanding, and that their mission was
to restore this higher belief. Such a lapse from an earlier monotheism thus brought the Yoruba directly into the Fall and Exile stories of the Old Testament.

By extension, elements of traditional Yoruba belief were said to prefigure and prophesy Jesus. The adoption of faith in Christ, therefore, was not a rejection but an evolution of Yoruba belief.

Credit: Mai Nasara (From “Crowther’s World: The Yoruba People,” and “Conversion” by Gareth Sturdy)

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