My First Visit to Ile Ife (ile ife): Foundational Work in uncovering our African Nutritional Heritage 10 June 2023 by Eben van Tonder
A short clip where I celebrate the beauty of Ile Ife.
I am on a quest to discover the culinary and nutritional heritage of Africa. One of the sources of great interest to me is the religious heritage as technology from the past is often written into its mythology. Due to the sacred nature of religious narrative, it often remains unchanged for many generations. I discovered the ancient city of Ile Ife (ile ife), 218kg northeast of Lagos which is the centre of the traditional Yoruba faith. It is here, according to the traditional narrative where the first humans were created. From here the first sunrise has been observed. This city existed since 1080 AD with evidence of habitation stretching back to 10 BCE. Its age and focus on animal sacrifice immediately made me travel there this past weekend to see what I can discover from their sacrificial system that contains pockets of technology from ancient Africa. An indigenous African religion of this age and depth and grounding with a tight connection to one holy city which rivals the Christian, Islam and Hindu faiths was of such huge and immediate interest to me in light of my work that I had to get there at the first available opportunity! Can it be that such a place exist?!
The German explorer, Frobenius (1913) wrote that “it was in Timbuktu where I obtained a full description of Ife and its temples as well as of its inhabitants, and in other Soudanese towns from slaves who never again could hope to see their native homes.”
The Magnitude of the Experience
There is nothing that could have prepared me for my visit to Ile Ife, the centre for life for Yorubaland, a region designated across modern-day countries of Nigeria, Togo, Benin, and about 60% of the land area of Ghana.
It was a place of legends, The German explorer, Frobenius (1913) wrote that “it was in Timbuktu where I obtained a full description of Ife and its temples as well as of its inhabitants, and in other Soudanese towns from slaves who never again could hope to see their native homes.”
The streets are dusty; the houses old; the people warm and friendly with many times more motorcycles than cars. It’s a city that could not have looked much different 100 or 200 years ago. Unlike Lagos with its stifling masses, here is enough space to breathe. Goats lazily sleep on platforms within one of the main traffic circles of the city. It’s easy to cross the road because for long periods there is no traffic at all.
Pockets of Ancient Observations on Nutrition
The king or Oòni (King) of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi, travelled to Abuja – not that there would have been much hope to meet him, but this is Africa and Ile Ife is unlike any place on earth. Within the first half an hour of being at the palace, Eemese Tayo introduces me to the centre of blood sacrifices. Standing next to the altar, he confirmed that blood is more powerful than meat; intestines come next in terms of nutritional value and next is meat. All these trumps vegetables. The practicalness of using blood which is a liquid vs a solid is abundantly evident, but still, I wonder if this priority reflected to some degree an understanding of ancient Africa of the value of blood as it was in many ancient cultures. The Jews, for example, knew that blood is life! Leviticus 17:11 talks about sacrifice and reads, “. . . the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.” (King James Bible) Meat offerings are easily disposed of if the deity consumes them with fire. It is not to say that blood is the only sacrificial option.
It is why I am here. Could the priority of blood encapsulate scientific thought, gathered over millennia of careful observation, taken up into folklore and preserved in religious mythology? Does this hint at some of Africa’s earliest breakthroughs in its understanding of nutrition? I have been visiting shrines for almost 8 hours on Saturday in intense discourse about these matters and will leave it to Ọrunmila, the spirit or Orisha which is wisdom and knowledge to guide my thoughts and educational endeavours to understand this better and develop the concept.
The nature of sacrifice and the mechanisms it unlocks in Yoruba tradition has been the centre of discussion the entire day from the time we started at the palace, at every shrine we visited and king we interviewed, until my security detail and driver finally gave up on me when I was still discussing the exact same topic that the day began with at 16:46, with Owa Yekere, the king and custodian of the last shrine we visited, that of Moremi Ajasoro, daughter of the hunter-warrior, Lukugba, the woman who sacrificed everything for her people, including her only son, Oluorogbo. His official title is Oba Isoro Sunday Oluwagbemileke Obisanya Owa Yekere of the Ife kingdom. Owa, himself a masterful storyteller had us spellbound as I heard the story of Moremi Ajasoro for the first time. When he got to the part where Moremi offered her son as she promised, the entire group collectively gasped. The comparison to Christianity I immediately drew was what the Oòni (King) of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi also drew and solicited not a little controversy! I am, however, in full agreement with his majesty!
At the second site, we visited on Saturday, I was introduced to His Eminence, Aworeni Awodotun Owolabi. He is the chosen Araba Agbaye, taking over from his father as the “highest-ranking priest in the world” or “the leader of all priests worldwide.” The Araba Agbaye holds a position of great authority and responsibility within the Yoruba religious community. The Araba Agbaye serves as the leader and spiritual head of the organized Ifa/Orisha religious practitioners worldwide. They are responsible for overseeing and guiding the activities of Ifa/Orisha priests and devotees globally. The title of Araba Agbaye is not hereditary but is attained through a selection process by a council of elders. He acts as a custodian of Yoruba religious traditions and practices, including the Ifa divination system.
I was not briefed on who he was and was completely unprepared when, suddenly I was ushered into the room where he holds court and after the required formalities, was told that I could ask my question to his eminence. Fortunately, I recorded it and followed on in an exchange that can be described as the best of the African tradition of great storytelling! Again, the matter of sacrifice was front and centre stage in our discussion.
This experience would repeat itself over and over throughout the day as we visit one shrine after the other. I would enquire as to the story of the particular god or spirit and the king or caretaker would be only too delighted to retell the story to our great entertainment and be left every time in amazement at the majesty of the oratory. None was as brilliantly done as his eminence, and I am not just saying it because of his position. It was something to behold!
Following the discussion and my inquiry about sacrifice, there would be an offering made to the god, prayers would be said, divination would take place, and we would greet our host and off to the next shrine. It is said that there are 201 gods in Ile Ife. The shrines are the actual locations where, according to the traditions, the gods and kings lived and where notable events took place, unified by a single and consistent narrative.
The Experience was Exhilarating, Extremely Informative and Haunting
So, what is it that makes me sit wide awake at 1:44 Sunday morning when I am supposed to be exhausted and fast asleep that is keeping me up? The fact of the existence of Ile Ife. The ancient streets and buildings. That these stories have been told for thousands of years and the meetings with the kings and caretakers were with people in a direct line of descent from the earliest kings to be custodians of the shrines. The fact of the existence of the Oòni (King) of Ife!
At one site in the palace complex, I prayed where governors, heads of state and businesspeople like Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa prayed, performing the same rituals as they did. The moment was surreal!
The ability of such a system to hold ancient traditions and encapsulate careful observation by the ancients astounded me. At the same time, I was able to clearly see how powerful modern influences alter the narrative. Not regarding the essence of the faith, but the minutia which was the subject of my inquiry. Not only was I able to trace these through the day, but when we got back to the Researchers Lodge on the grounds of the Obafemi Awolowo University, our host in Ile Ife, Ikeola Aremu’s husband, Dr Bolaji Aremo, a professor in engineering, gave me some of the best summaries of how the narrative (in the minutia) changes especially in the light of health concerns related to the consumption of blood.
I am privileged to have these discussions at a time when these changes can still be traced, and it becomes a powerful set of data for the work I am committed to namely to uncover the advanced African culinary and nutritional tradition. Meat science has been the pursuit of my life and the subject of nutrition is therefore my chief field of interest in this new study.
All these things were swimming through my mind, and I could not sleep.
Expanding Discourse on Major World Religions
This should be the end of my summary of the day, but it is not. It is not just the exhilaration of uncovering small capsules of ancient observations and nutritional practices through the course of one day in one of the most ancient settings in Africa which are keeping me awake tonight. It is also the realisation that I have come face to face with a culture that tells, in many respects, the same story as Christianity, and Islam (as far as I understand the narrative of the last one). The difference is that where the narrative of these religions is coated in a romantic and acceptable form, the exact same logic within the traditional Yoruba faith is presented much more brutal and in unacceptable terms for the Western Mind. It allowed me to see these dominant world faiths through new eyes where the romance has been stripped away by the brute facts of the religious narrative. I see it so clearly but discussing it will be offensive to almost every practitioner of these faiths. So, I resolved tonight to limit my discussions on this subject to personal conversations with select people so that I do not make my work in the field of the African nutritional and culinary heritage irrelevant and limit my access to source material. Africa is, after all, broadly speaking, either Christian or Muslim, except here in the centre point of Yorubaland and the discussion will be so repulsive to Christians and Muslims that I will do damage to my core objective. Not just that, but many of my closest friends and my broader family will take extreme exception to the insights I gained.
So, the groundwork is being laid for one of the greatest adventures on earth and I have clarity on the research methodology to follow. The places where the richest source of information lies is being elucidated and Ile Ife and its faith system will remain a key focus.
What a day! I posted some of my photos below as well as a Youtube link I did on the Sunday following my visit to the city.
The YouTube link where I reflect on my day in the city is: https://youtu.be/GteP5UbL4kg
Notes from Ife and other sources
- The Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes – please read and share additional information.
- The Restricted Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes – notes not suitable for the sensitive reader. Graphic images involving human sacrifice and torture.
Introduction to the general subject
- Meat and Groundnuts in Ancient Africa: Extracts from Old Manuscripts and Early Writings
- The Nutty’ness of African Meat Curing
Main Menu Page
The menu page for work on ancient meat technology and nutrition is: “Meat: From Prehistory into the More Recent, but Still, Distant Past“
Frobenius, Leo. (Originally published: 1913)The Voice of Africa, Being an Account of the Travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the Years 1910-1912
If you have any additional information to add to the discussion or comments, please contact me at:
Join us on Facebook and follow the adventure!