THE YORUBA EXAMPLE OF PRE-COLONIAL CONCEPT OF AFRICAN PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY

Today, even the most rabid supporter of colonialism would agree that the various colonial philosophies of history denied that Africans were or ever could be part of that mainstream of world history.  When Hegel said “The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend  him; there characters”5, or an Oxford Professor of history asserted that all that ever happened in Africa before the coming of the Europeans were mere “barbarous gyrations”, each of them would appear to be expressing this denial by the Europeans of Africans being part of world history.  This philosophy, however, has been contested by most African historians since the 1950’s and Professor Roland Oliver, in his own inaugural lecture given at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1962 said that such erroneous philosophies arose out of ignorance of the dimensions of human history.  Indeed, available evidence reveals that Africa not only had a notion of history before the coming of the Europeans, they also contributed to the world thinking on history. The Yoruba, a major ethnic in South Western Nigeria, would provide a good case study of how African had reflected on the meaning/nature and purpose of history.
What then did the Yoruba think about history and its uses?  A convenient way of approaching the question is to take a critical look at the classification of knowledge by the Yoruba.  A close study of Yoruba oral literature, both secular and religious, will reveal that the Yoruba classified all knowledge into two categories: knowledge of the spiritual world, which for want of a better word we will call Essence of Em in Yoruba, and knowledge of the physical world, History, Itan in Yoruba, corresponding to their division of the universe into two spheres, heaven and earth, which they call “igba nla meji ade isi” (two large calabashes, one covering the other inextricably).  Essences relate to the realm of knowledge associated with heave, the pantheon of Yoruba gods, and those things that cannot be observed by the naked eye.  In this classification of knowledge will be includes, not just theology and worship but also all the subjects now includes in the natural sciences. All other knowledge derived from human actions or from actions which human eyes can observe, including all the applied sciences, are classified as History (Itan), Itan for the Yoruba included what we would now regard as law, political sciences, philosophy, literature, etc.  The Yoruba believe that a good understanding of the essences imparts imo which can roughly be translated as knowledge, while a good acquaintance with history bestows ogbon – against roughly translated as wisdom.
These two main branches of knowledge are not seen as being in watertight compartments, just is the earth and the sky are not regarded as being unconnected.  They are rather linked together in one corpus of knowledge called Ifa. A good example of the combination of the unseen forces of nature (essences) and Itan (history) can be cited from one of Wande Abimbola’s collection of Ifa verses:
Gbogbo ori afin ewu
Abuke l’ o r’ eru ossa ma so
Laalaagbaja l’ o ti ko ise re de
A difa fun Orunmila
5    Nijo to nlo r’ emi omo Olodumare s’ obinrin:
Emi, omo Olodumare
Omo teni legelege f’ ori s’ apeji
Orunmila gbo riru ebo, o ru
O gbo etu atukesu, o tu
10    O gbo ikara ebo ha fun un
O ni ase bi emi o ba bo
Owo mbe
Hin hin, owo mbe
Ase b’ emi o ba bo
15    Aye mbe
Hin hin, aya mbe
Ase b’ emi o baba bo
Omo mbe
Hin hin, omo mbe
20    Ase b’ emi o ba bo
Ire gbogbo mbe
Hin hin ire gbongbo mbe
In this place, the first three lines refer to the forces of nature, (essences) the next seven refer to history i.e. the story of human action, and the next twelve lines refer to the consequences of the combination of the forces of nature and human action.  In this particular piece we are told that there was a concurrence between the forces of nature and human action and the result was peace, plenty and happiness. In other Ifa verses, there may be discordance between the forces of nature and human actions, then you get chaos.  However, the point to note here is that the Ifa corpus of knowledge, the greatest single corpus known to the Yoruba, combines religion and history.
At this point, it is necessary to have a closer look at the Yoruba conception of history.  For the Yoruba, Itan is anything observed and remembered about the actions, voluntary and involuntary, of human beings as well as his natural environments.  Thus itan, history, is not just a record of human actions, not just what human beings do.  The development of all living objects constitutes history for the Yoruba mind as long as such a development is remembered by human beings.  Thus when the Yoruba say “igi ti o ba ti oju eni hu, ko le wo pa ni” (a tree that grew under one’s observation cannot crush one), they are not denying that the volume or mass or weight of such a tree could be lethal if it fell on one.  Rather they are saying that the tree has a history which will be so well known, that one will be able to take precautions against its eventual fall. Or when the Yoruba say “a kii mo oruko iku, ki iku o pa ‘ni, a kii mo oruko arun ki arun so ni lojo (if one knows the same of death, death does not kill one prematurely, and if one knows the name of disease, it does not confine one) they are saying that death and diseases have their histories which, once known, aid prevention and cure.  In other words, inanimate things like trees and diseases also have their histories which, when remembered by human beings, lend them to easier manipulation. This definition of history by the Yoruba is very wide, but it will be agreed that it is very modern, for current approaches to the study of natural phenomena to be harnessed for human use are tending to be historical.  Modern scientists are seeking to know the histories and characteristics of these phenomena in order to be able to manipulate them.
Not only have the Yoruba defined history they have also thought about the nature of history.  From the example of the Ifa  verse that cited above, and practically from every Ifa verse, one would gain the impression that the Yoruba believed that history repeats itself.  The history part of Ifa gives an example of a past event similar to the one confronting the person seeking direction, and then relates the actions performed in that past with the injunction that the present character should go and do likewise.  In other words Ifa tends to show that the same events repeat themselves and can serve as guide to solutions of present problems.
Similar to this view of history is the Yoruba saying “Aiye nre ibi aaro” (that world is going back to the morning period).  Here history is seen in terms of the natural phenomenon of a day with its morning, afternoon and evening or night periods.  This looks like cyclical view of history with a period of rise and fall of darkness and of light separated by a bright afternoon period which can be regarded as the classical period.  There is however another saying which shows that the Yoruba also saw history as continuos. “Aiye nlo a nto u” (The world is moving and we are following).  This saying may imply that human beings are inexorably following the forces of nature, continuously without an end.  On the other hand, “aiye” here may mean the powerful ones of the world rather than natural forces. In that case the whole saying may indicate that the Yoruba believe that it is the mighty ones on earth who shape the course of history, while other puny subjects follow their lead.  In both cases, there is the implication here that history is continuos, very similar to Arnold Toynbee’s view of history being a seamless garment. These examples should caution us against thinking that the Yoruba had a monolithic view of the nature of history. Further researches may reveal still more views.
Just as the Yoruba had thought about the nature of history, so they had also pondered upon its uses.  Foremost among the advantages which the study of history was believed to confer is ogbon (wisdom).  We commonly hear people say that the only lesson of history is that nobody learns from history.  This is a view that the Yoruba did not accept. To them a person who did not or could not learn from history was, not just an ego (fool) but an omugo (i.e. someone who makes foolishness his constant drink).  To show how highly the Yoruba regarded knowledge of history, Orunmila the epitome of wisdom and knowledge in Yoruba cosmology, is called “opitan ale Ife” (the historian of Ifa land).  The implication here is that Orunmila’s wisdom is derived, at least in part, from his knowledge of history.
Because of this important advantage which history conferred one of the major ways of educating a Yoruba child to manhood and adulthood is through Itan.  Every Yoruba boy or girl participated in the usual evening itan sessions conducted on clear moonlight nights.  Here children were taught the value, the norms and the ethics of the society, as well as the importance of observation.  And when a person attained the highest political office, such as when he become an Oba, he was kept secluded for between fifty-five and seventy days and taught more of the history of his kingdom.  It was believed that in this way he would attain greater wisdom, and maintain social and political stability in his kingdom.  History is believed to be useful for the solution of day-to-day problems. If there was a chieftaincy tangle or a disagreement over land boundaries a resort was made to history.  Even for such things as soothing an irate child, history was believed to be useful. The Yoruba say, “bi omode ba ko iyan ala abgo a fi itan bale”.  (When a child refused his evening meal, the elder resorts to historical precedents).
The Yoruba however believe that wisdom is inexhaustible.  They assert that passage of time brings greater historical experience and therefore greater wisdom.  They say that what is considered absolute wisdom in one age, will after further historical experience be discovered to be but stupidity in another age.  This is exemplified in the saying “ogbon odunni were emmii’ this year’s wisdom is madness next year).  This is party why the Yoruba automatically respect age and experience.  Indeed they give ominous warnings to young inexperienced but proud and ambitious men, who parade themselves as being cleverer and wiser than older men, by inviting them to consider history and be wise.  
Two sayings will remind us of this warning.  The first is “Bi a lo’aso bi agba a kii ni akisa bi agba”.  Literally translated, this means that if one has a many clothes as an older man, one cannot have as many rags.  Properly understood, it means that if a cocky young man prides himself of being as knowledgeable of the present as an older person he cannot have as much first hand experience of the post as the older person.  The second saying is “Asese yo ogomo ti o ni oun a kan orun gbongbon, awon ti a siwaju re se bee ri?” (The new palm frond boasts that it was going to touch the very heavens, did those before him achieve that?).  This saying is sometimes put differently thus, the new palm frond boasts that it was going to touch the very heavens, did those before him achieve that?).  this saying is sometimes put differently thus, the new palm frond boasts “mo duro papapa” (I stand erect and compact) and the older ones drooping down reply “o se wa bee ri” (we once boasted like that!).  Consequent upon this belief and attitude the Yoruba encourage young men who are prepared to drink from the fountains of history and learn wisdom.  Thus the saying “omode ti o ba mo owo we, a ba agba jeun” (a child who knows how to wash his hands properly will eat with the elders).
But because of the inexhaustible nature of wisdom derivable from history, the Yoruba give a warning against an interminable study of the subject.  The wiser you are, the more you seek to know and if you are not careful, you may neglect your material well being. Thus the Yoruba say “penpe I’aso opitan mo” (the historian’s dress is short).  It is therefore not uncommon to find babalowo (Ifa priests) who heed this injunction and bear such oriki as “okafa mo niwon ola” (he who studies just enough Ifa for affluence).
The Yoruba have also given a thought to the sources of their history.  All of them are oral, since they did not develop any writing before the early decades of the nineteenth century.  Every one knows that some of the sources are reposited in certain institutions such as the arokin and alaro.  What is not often realised is that the sources have also been carefully graded by the Yoruba in such a way that any scholar who is not aware of these gradings is in danger of misinterpreting Yoruba history.  Unfortunately most scholars who have worked on Yoruba traditions, whether they are historians or sociologist, have tended to regard the oral sources as monolithic and therefore place equal value on them. Some who have been completely ignorant of the cultural content of the sources they were using have been more confused than enlightened by what they collected.
Perhaps we should spend some time looking at how the Yoruba viewed sources of history.  Yoruba sources of history are plentiful and have been enshrined in both human beings and inanimate objects.  A name given to a person or an object can serve to remind people of some national historical event. Thus Abogunde (born during a war) will continue to remind them of the events of that particular war, and Ita Ijero the place of assembly) will continue to remind one of what that assembly was about.  A longer version of this source is the Oriki and the orile usually called praise names or praise poems, the former being descriptive of a particular individual and the later being ascriptive to a group.  Apart from these, there are the historical sources enshrined in the traditional festivals. Each village, each town, and each kingdom had and still has its cycle of festivals.  These festivals contain a large measure of the people’s history, re-enacted annually sometimes in religious drama, sometimes in secular drama. Everyone was involved in one or more of these festivals in any one year.
Then there were those periodic ceremonies associated with the crowning of an oba, or the installation of the chiefs.  These only come whenever there was a need, but whenever they occurred, an opportunity was taken to remind the people of a significant part of their history.  All these sources are in addition to those that are obtained in Ifa verses as we noted earlier. They are in addition to those that are related by the arukin and alara, all of which put together constitute a very formidable body of evidence.
Earlier on we referred to Vico’s assertion that oral sources do not always mean what they say.  To some extent this is true, not only or oral sources but for written ones as well. For every culture develops its own symbolism and idioms and to understand what is being said, one must really be at home in those symbolism and idioms.  In the case of Yoruba sources, it is very true of certain categories of sources. Those usual itan sessions, to which children were exposed and in which conversations between men and animals or between animals were related, do not exactly mean what they say.  They are didactic. They use certain historical events to teach ogbon (wisdom) in a way that will appeal to children’s imagination.
Equally conforming to Vic’s observation are those Yoruba narrative traditions recoverable from the arokin and alaro, which tend to give the stories of origin and political development of a town or a kingdom.  These are not didactic but interpretative. The facts of history are narrated in the light of current realities.  If those realities change, then the interpretations, though not the facts, also change. Most researches of Yoruba history and culture are conversant only with this class of already interpreted evidence without realising it and when they find the interpretations changed, they mistakenly conclude that the facts have changed.  They therefore go on to draw a more erroneous corollary that oral sources are not trustworthy, when in fact it is those scholars who have not mastered their own tools.
However, there are certain classes of oral tradition which do exactly mean what they say albeit in an abbreviated form since there is a limit to what the human brain can carry.  Earlier on we have had cause to refer to place names, human names, oriki and orile and those re-enactment ceremonies that are associated with the crowing of an oba.  These, without any iota of doubt, mean exactly what they say.  The oriki is the biography of an individual while an orile is the biography of a group.  Nothing essential is hidden. If the subject of the poem is a brave or cantankerous person, if he is handsome or ugly, if he is honest or roguish, all are narrated and so are his achievements and failures.  Anyone reading the oriki of Bashorun Ogunmola of Ibadan or of Ogedengbe Gbogugboro of Ilesa will see these characteristic clearly evinced.
CONCLUSION
By giving these few examples of how the Yoruba saw the subject of history, some broad conclusions can be drawn.  First, if any African society, such as the Yoruba, had such views on history, incomplete as they are presented here, it is sheer intellectual bankruptcy for anyone to insist that the Africans had no history before the coming of the Europeans.  For one does not reflect on something that one does not know intimately.
Second, it should be clear to the modern explores of the African mind that the so-called traditional Africans reflected not only on the physical world around them, but also formulated concepts about the physical world.
Finally, it is clear from this scholarship that the modern African historians should not stop at being just the linear heir of modern historiography.