Yoruba elders and Ulli Beier’s dog, By Lasisi Olagunju 

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By Lasisi Olagunju 
Ibadan of 1914 witnessed the founding of a club with a very unique name: Egbé Àgbà ò Tán (Society of Elders-Have-Not-Gone-Extinct). Why did they have to choose that name? The old in Ibadan of that period were at an intersection between a receding era that belonged to them and a rude, crude, creepy world of modernity (ayé òlàjú). Members of the Egbe included Reverend A. B. Akinyele and his brother, I. B. Akinyele, who later became Olubadan in 1955. Another member was Salami Agbaje, one of the two pioneer men of money in Ibadan; his rival was Adebisi Idi Ikan. Iconic poet and culture scholar, Professor Adeboye Babalola (1985:165) has a description for the Egbe: it was a “society of well-to-do citizens.” These men had more than money; their visage saw beyond Ibadan, they covered the Yoruba field; they also had lots of guts. They would not be elders if they were cowards. Members of this Egbe were not afraid to take positions. They were involved in breaking chains and building barns of wisdom. They stood for something: sometimes popular; other times not. But they lived the name of their Egbe – they acted loudly and were shrill that the land was not in want of elders. That was the seed that birthed the sweet yam we pound.
The Yoruba he-goat is never hornless; with the Yoruba, one does not become an elder and, yet, lack courage and grope for conviction – A kìí d’àgbà má l’áyà. There is always a pantheon of elders who say it as they feel. Even when they are wrong, it does not lie in the mouth of the feeble novice to say they are wrong. It is a sin, almost unpardonable. When a child tells his father to stop saying what he is saying, that child is damned. Today’s affliction is the insolent who hacks at elders for breathing in and breathing out without links to the lungs of politicians of entitlement. Before now, I had thought the Yoruba were the pregnant woman who carefully chooses her beats. We were told very long ago that an expectant mother must never dance to the bèmbé drum. For the pregnant, it is a dance of inelegance; even of death. If she thinks the beat fits her, she ought to know it is not good for her belly and its future. But this is no longer so. Every beat that brings showers of money is today blessed with a dance in Yorubaland. An election comes up on February 25, 2023 and we have a candidate who thinks he must be supported by all – as a matter of cash and compulsion. And because of this, the young and the old must sip from the same (poisoned) cup in the candidate’s grip. What is the cost of having all elders silenced or chained to the same stake? A household does not have an elder and everybody sleeps, at night, with all heads facing the same direction. That sleep would be a sleep of death – mass death and total extinction.
I learnt very early in life that there are three sets of people you can’t be rude to and sleep in peace: our kings, our elders, and our priests. Today, because of politics and one man’s ambition, no elder is too ‘sacred’ to be dragged in the mud by uncultured and de-cultured agents. But there are consequences. When you allow yourself to be used to insult Ìrókò, you should expect the spirit to teach the impudent some lessons. Professor Ulli Beier needs no introduction. He had a dog in Osogbo in the 1950s whose life story should teach some lessons to writers of political verses that degrade decorum. Of all the names in the whole wide world, Tantólórun (Who-is-as-big-as-God) was the name Beier gave his dog; Èéfínnìwa (Character-is-Smoke) was the dog’s child. When a dog is too wild to know fire, what fate awaits her? Beier’s Tantólórun did exactly this and it is what I see each time I read bad stuff written against elders by those I know and those that I don’t know – but who all know themselves.
Beier tells the story: “Tantólórun was a very sensitive and gentle dog. She had never shown the slightest aggressiveness, not even when she had pups. But there was one person at whom she growled threateningly every time he entered the house. He was an elderly priest of Oya, who seemed to have lost his following, and at whose shrine little or no activity went on. He was, however, a very knowledgeable man and we enjoyed talking to him. He passed our house often and usually dropped in for a few minutes to sit down on our veranda to relax. Tantólórun grew aggressive towards him as time went on. She not only growled but barked wildly at him and had to be shut up in a room while the man was around. Her behaviour was inexplicable, but it began to irritate the man more and more, and he threatened not to visit us anymore unless we could manage to control the dog.
“Some of our friends offered an explanation: they said that the priest liked to eat dog meat and that because of this he often performed the annual sacrifice for a group of Ogun worshippers in Osogbo. They suggested that the dog sensed his perverse attitude toward dogs and that her uncontrollable anger stemmed from that. Whatever the real cause, we could not control her and our friend became more and more annoyed. He finally declared he was not going to enter our house again. At that stage, relationships had become so strained that we hardly felt we had lost a friend. In fact, in recent weeks, his character seemed to have changed. He had lost his charm, at least towards us, and his formerly beautiful face suddenly looked mean. Much as we regretted the situation, there was nothing we could do about it.
“Unfortunately, however, the incident was not closed. Tantólórun seemed to hate the old man so much that even when he was passing our house on the street, she would rush out and bark at him, pursuing him a few yards down the street. One day she even started to tug at his long flowing agbádá with her teeth. Infuriated, the priest shouted that if the dog did it again, he would have to ‘put medicine’ on her. The very next day the dog rushed out again, and this time the priest turned round, speaking incantations at her. The effect was curious. The dog cringed and withdrew. She tried to bark, but could not. She appeared to have lost her voice. He followed her back to the house and said: This is nothing. It is just to show you that I am serious. If she does it again tomorrow, I will really have to use some strong words. He left angrily.
“Unfortunately, the dog did not understand the warning. She had recovered from her strange state soon after the old man had left. The very next day, she rushed out again barking and trying to grab the priest’s agbádá. Angrily, the priest turned and spoke his incantations. The dog fled back to the house. But this time she did not recover. Instead, she behaved in the most frightening manner. She rolled her eyes and snarled at everybody and foam appeared in her mouth. We could not be sure that she had not developed rabies. Even if that weren’t so, it was obvious that in her present mood, she would sooner or later attack people. She did not appear to recognize any of us. We quickly evacuated all the people from the house. There were usually a dozen children playing on the ground floor. Then we locked her into the house, and once again I went to our old friend, the Olúóde, to ask for help.
“Again, I thought we would have to shoot the dog. She may have rabies, I said, and we cannot take this kind of risk. But the Olúóde first wanted to know how it had happened. When he heard the name of the man who had cursed the dog, he simply laughed: ‘What, him? He doesn’t know anything! He is a mere child in these matters. Don’t worry. I’ll know what to do. Come, let’s go to your house.’ When we reached the house, he took the key, asked me to remain outside, and entered. There was not a sound coming from within. After about 10 minutes, the Olúóde came out of the house, laughing. The dog followed him, wagging her tail as if nothing had happened.
Tantólórun had no recurrence of her strange behaviour. For a couple of weeks, the old priest avoided our house, but when he passed by again, Tantólórun had lost interest in him. Again, I have no explanation. The Olúóde said he did not give the dog anything to eat, that all he used were incantations.” End of story.
There is currently a competition among a strange strain of humans who dispense insult as salt to elders. Their beaks have no break; their woodpecker attacks every wood that won’t cook for their lord. You all know their victims, I won’t name them here. I excuse the non-Yoruba among the insolent; it is possible that elders are nudged with kicks in their own clime. But where I belong, the grey-haired is an egg; he is held with care and reverence. His glare is not ours to reply to. If an elder is decidedly bad, an older elder handles his case. The head of the young is too fragile to butt the bad of the elderly. I read the attackers daily; they churn out words heavier than their mouths. They abuse Yoruba elders, yet they claim to be champions of the Yoruba cause in 2023 Nigeria. Some of them are journalists, others social commentators. I read them and shiver. Should a man, because of an ambition that is not his, turn himself into a community dog, eat every poo, and bark at whoever he is fed to attack? Read the Beier story above again. Stamping on the toes of elders is weightier than blinding the eyes of the earth. The warrior’s horse falls in battle because it does not know how to say no to every spur.  May my mouth not ruin my head like Ìwòfà Àlàbá who ran his tongue loosely on everything about everything.
We cannot, because of an election, lose our beautiful teeth and the laughter we inherited with them. The foundation of Ile Ife was built on the hardcore wisdom of the old and the nimble intelligence of the young. Do you remember Fela’s Àlùjanjankíjan? Because the world thinks it is wiser than its past, it says all mothers of the land are evil because they do not sing the song of the moment. They must die – and they, all of them, except one – are actually put to death by their own children. Of all the rascally young, only Dog has the wisdom of hiding his own mother in heaven. And it is from the heights of that youngster’s insight that the world is saved from the perils of a devastating famine. And that situation is coming now that senicide has become the pastime of the ambitious. Who will clothe the Yoruba when the Nigerian harmattan lands with its cold-blooded dryness? Lanrewaju Adepoju of ewì fame asked that question 36 years ago in his record ‘Iku Awolowo.’ A scramble for a duvet may happen very soon.