By Toyin Falola
The 6th J. A. Atanda Lectures and Conference upheld its standard as an event with an impressive academic gathering of scholars and researchers interested in the study of the Yoruba. This year’s event kicked off on Monday, June 21st, 2021, with the opening ceremony and first round of lectures at the Main Campus of Babcock University, Ilisan-Remo, Ogun State.
Convened by Toyin Falola and Prof. Mobolanle Sotunsa and co-hosted by the University of Texas and Babcock University, the Atanda Lectures and Conference is held in memory of the late Prof. Joseph Atanda, a distinguished professor of History. It is an avenue to bring together hundreds of scholars in Yoruba history, language and culture-related fields, to further research and studies into the past and present of the Yoruba people, as a way of enhancing the works of the late Prof. Atanda, a celebrated historian who had an especial interest in the Yoruba people and culture.
The theme of this year’s event, which has 450 scholars in attendance, is “Yoruba Culture and Society.” Dignitaries such as the Ogun State Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, Dr. Oluwatoyin Taiwo; the former Deputy Governor of Ogun State, Alhaja Sailimot Badru; the Orangun of Oke-Ila, His Royal Highness, Oba Abolarin Adedokun; the Olofin of Ilishan-Remo, His Royal Highness, Oba Michael Sonuga; the Alaperu of Iperu, His Royal Majesty, Oba Adeleke Basibo; Prince (Dr.) Yemisi Shyllon, Nigeria’s preeminent art collector, witnessed the opening ceremony. As is customary with Babcock University, the opening ceremony started with a devotional and was followed by traditional Yoruba songs and dances performed by the Adeabeke Cultural Voices to entertain participants at the conference.
In their welcome addresses, the co-convener, Prof. Mobolanle Sotunsa (the Vice-Chancellor of Babcock University), Prof. Ademola Tayo, and the distinguished Royal Father of the Day, His Royal Highness, Oba Michael Sonuga, expressed their delight at the presence of scholars from Nigeria and other parts of the world. They promised the participants that the conference would serve as a means of richly enriching their knowledge of the Yoruba people, language, and culture.
The conference commenced in earnest, with the participants leaving for the various panel sessions. The first four panels were held in the morning, while the next six panels were held in the afternoon. The first panel had seven scholars discuss various topics that explored the theme, “Archival Repository of Culture.” The bulk of the papers in this panel session were focused on the importance of preservation to cultural practices and norms, the roles of the librarian and archiver, and how technology can be leveraged to preserve cultural heritage. “Technologies and the Production of Cultural Works” was the focus of the second panel. Among the presentation at this panel were interesting papers such as “The Language of Social Media: A Critical Interpretation of Yoruba-Themed Stickers on WhatsApp” and “Some Spiritual and Epidemic Quandaries of Computerized Ifa Divination.” Scholars on this panel examined how technology has influenced culture, and vice-versa, especially in the use of technology to support cultural expression.
Panel three was equally intellectually refreshing, with “Pan-African Cultural Development” as its theme. Scholars on this panel gave rich presentations on pan-Africanism and pan-Africanistic issues ranging from identity to migration, to how migration and the diaspora affect the promotion and propagation of the Yoruba language, and how the diaspora should positively influence the propagation of the Yoruba language. The panel was diverse in that some panelists discussed other aspects of culture, asides from language. One such paper was “A Cultural Explosion: An Enduring Effect of Globalization on the Lagos People Dress,” which explored how cultural influences affected tangible aspects of culture such as dressing. The last panel discussion for the morning session had seven scholars review papers centered on “African Modern Society, Culture and Knowledge.” Interesting and thought-evoking papers were presented on concepts such as the modernization of Africa, cultural renaissance in Africa, and the modern African woman.
Following the first round of panel sessions, the opening ceremony and keynote lectures began. The honoree’s daughter, Dr. Ajoke Fatunde, thanked the conveners on behalf of the family members for immortalizing Prof. Atanda in such a way. She expressed her elation at how Professors Falola and Sotunsa have given their support in various ways and have taken the family like theirs. Prof. Adesina, a reputable historian from the University of Ibadan, gave apt and eulogizing remarks on the life and works of Prof. J. A. Atanda, who was a professor at Nigeria’s premier university, the University of Ibadan.
Prof. Arinpe Adejumo, a respected professor of linguistics and African languages, delivered the first keynote lecture on the topic, “Yoruba Culture in a Changing World.” She described culture as God’s own way of organizing His people, and that culture serves as one of the ways of putting society to order. She both lauded and lamented the changes that the Yoruba culture has experienced due to colonialism. She expressed the dynamism of culture and how the Yoruba culture is not left out of such a characteristic of culture. According to her, the Yoruba culture is experiencing growth and development due to the changing world. She emphasized leveraging the positive changes that have happened to the Yoruba culture while jettisoning the undesirable elements.
Dr. Biodun Ogundayo, the Director of African Studies at the University of Pittsburg, delivered the second keynote lecture, titled, “Grand Unifying Theory of Yoruba Practice: Theorizing Yoruba Practice in the 21st Century.” Dr. Ogundayo sought means to theorize Yoruba practice, whereby certain elements describe what it means to be and act like a Yoruba. Such elements include the expression of Yoruba metaphysics through Yoruba ethics and epics; the projection of Yoruba spirituality through Yoruba religious traditions and superstitious beliefs; the expression of Yoruba epistemology through “iwa,” and how all these elements unify to form a grand unifying theory of practice; and a holistic theory that defines the actions and deeds of the quintessential Yoruba person.
There was a melodic interlude from the Classic World Concept troupe, a group of Babcock University students and alumni, who expressed the importance of cultural promotion and cultural pride through dance and a recital.
After this, Prince (Dr.) Yemisi Shyllon, the Chair of the Keynote Addresses, spoke on the manifestations of the Yoruba culture in different aspects, and he further revealed the lucrativeness of tourism for a country that embraces the dynamism and beauty of its cultures. He talked about how beneficial tourism has been for countries such as France and Italy, which have turned their cultural heritages and monuments into tourist attraction centers. With statistics, Prince Shyllon proved how lucrative it would be for Nigeria to venture into tourism by working on preserving cultural heritages and reinforcing historical monuments and heritages that have been turned into tourist sites, such as the Point of No Return in Badagry.
One of the highlights of the day was the awarding of distinguished academics and culture promoters. Prince (Dr.) Yemisi Shyllon was awarded the “Léopold Sédar Senghor Prize for African Cultural Creativity and Impact;” Prof. Pamela Olubunmi Smith won the “J. A. Atanda Distinguished Award for Yoruba Creativity and Translation;” while Prof. Akintunde Akinyemi won the “J. A. Atanda Distinguished Award for Yoruba Studies.” The conveners and the Atanda family also instituted the “Atanda Prize for the Best Student in Languages and Literature” at Babcock University, with a One Million Naira prize expected to be awarded to the Best Graduating Student from the Department of Languages and Literature.
The evening session was a mixture of roundtables and panel sessions. There were three roundtables focused on expanding the discussions on Yoruba language and culture. The first roundtable was titled “Emeritus Professor Michael Omolewa @ 80: Repositioning Adult Education practice in Nigeria: A Review of Historiography.” It was moderated by Dr. Tolulope Ibikunle, and the discussants and participants focused on examining the life of Professor Omolewa as an adult educator, adult education in Nigeria, the achievements, and what is left to be done. The second roundtable, which centered on “A Reading, Critique, and Discussion of the Brass-Bells Drum, an English Translation of Akinwumi Isola’s Saworoide,” was moderated by Professor Pamela Smith, the textual translator of the Yoruba classic film. The third roundtable was focused on the “Yorubalization of Ubuntu.” Discussants and participants examined concepts such as the word “Ubuntu,” the existence of Ubuntu in the Yoruba society, whether there was a need to find a Yoruba equivalent of Ubuntu or not, and the need to go beyond discussion to creating a movement that would revive the Yoruba ideals of “omoluabi” and “ije omo eniyan”–humanity.
Panels five to ten were also held in the evening. Panel five, titled “Cultural Encounters with the West,” was an interesting examination of how the Yoruba culture has come into contact with Western cultures and how they have influenced the ever-changing Yoruba culture. Panel six, “Globalization and Cultural Encounters with the Arab/Islamic World,” saw the participants explore concepts such as the relationship between the Arabs and the Yoruba and how the Arabic language influences some Nigerian languages. Panel seven centered on the “Yoruba and their Neighbors.” It considered ethnicity in the past and the present, especially how the Yoruba have experienced incessant intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic conflicts. It also explored how the Yoruba relationships with other ethnic groups have impacted Nigeria’s social and economic growth.
Scholars at Panel eight discussed various concepts under the topic, “Changing Social Institutions.” They considered how the lack of proper enculturation has resulted in the misinterpretation of Nigerian cultures by the new crop of Nigerians. During Panel nine, scholars presented on diverse topics tapped from the theme, “Cultural Divisions of Ethnicities.” The papers at this panel examined the role Yoruba language can play in solving contemporary societal issues. Panel ten, centered on “Gender in Society,” was especially focused on the female gender, being the more marginalized gender in Yoruba cultures. It explored the past–such as the bravery of the Ijebu women, the concept of gender in the Yoruba society, and gender equality.
The Panel B sessions marked the end of the first day of the event, after which participants were served supper. As participants left for their various lodgings, they were seen holding various discussions, evidence that the first day was enlightening and academically beneficial to many of the scholars who participated in the panel sessions.