Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi

Two years ago, I was talking to a middle-aged woman in Ekiti State about what could be done to support her daughter who had been a victim of sexual abuse. Her thirteen-year-old daughter had been exploited for quite some time by a local Pastor, under the pretext of giving her money to help her buy things she needed. After dealing with the Pastor who was eventually sentenced to prison for his crimes, we needed to look into the circumstances that placed the vulnerable girl in harm’s way. I asked her mother what she did for a living, she told me she lived with an old woman and in exchange for taking care of her, she had a place to stay with her daughter.  She had no education, training or business. She had no husband to provide support and the girl’s father was out of the picture. I asked if she had ever done a petty trade or had learnt a skill or business and she said no.

 I found this quite alarming. It is very rare to find women in local communities who do not have a skill or trade, no matter how minimal. Women sell food and petty items, gather and sell firewood, work on farms, sell anything they can lay their hands on, all in a bid to provide for themselves and their children. They do this married or single. They have no intention of becoming business moguls but the principle is that they have to do something with heir hands. I stared at this poor woman and I wondered how she missed out on this very important tradition of industry.  I asked her what business she would like to do if she had capital and she said since she comes from a community where the sale of plantains is good business, she would like to do that. I gave her some money to start and got her another place to stay with her daughter. She now has two assistants to support her small business and she is doing well.

When I developed a keen interest in women’s social History when I was in post-graduate school, I was fascinated by the accounts of the role women played in developing local economies through long distance trade. Yoruba women travelled throughout the West Africa sub-region as traders and many of them became quite prosperous. There were the famous ones like Madam Efunroye Tinubu and Iyalode Efunsetan Aniwura who controlled trade routes that had slaves and weapons as part of the merchandise. There were also the millions of unknown and unsung women who handed down a tradition of self-reliance, a strong work ethic, discipline, service and philanthropy.

With the advent of western education, women had more choices and were able to pursue careers beyond entrepreneurship, even though the colonial education curriculum was modelled on Victorian values – women’s education was designed for them to be Teachers, Nurses, Social Workers and spouses of clergy. Later on, the education system became more liberal and allowed women to pursue the same professional goals as men and become Lawyers, Doctors, Academics and Civil Servants, something that was hitherto limited to elite young women.

 Alongside the accepted tradition of women as key players in the local economy, women were powerful players in indigenous religious circles, and they were also allowed political space. Even though the representation of women in indigenous political systems was often limited to the voices of the elite women and those affiliated to royal families, it was recognised that women were entitled to a voice and space. Those who represented the interests of women or who advised the Kings and Chiefs from a women’s perspective were known by different names across Yoruba communities.

They are called Iyalode, Iyaloja, Iyalaje, Eyelobinrin, Iya Oba, Erelu amongst other titles. They commanded the respect of all and sundry and were the ultimate role models for women. There have also been at least two women in antiquity who ruled as monarchs in Yorubaland. Alaafin Ajiun Orompotoniyun (Orompoto for short) ruled the Oyo Empire around 1554-1562. There was also Ooni Luwo Gbagida who ruled Ile-Ife as the 21st Ooni around the 12th century. The Ondo and Ekiti communities have a strong female regency tradition, to fill the gaps that arise when monarchs pass away.

 Looking back at this rich History, it is hard to see how we got to where we are now. Even though women now have more educational and professional opportunities than ever before, this has translated into marginal political power and influence. Women’s leadership is still something both men and women are suspicious of, and the debates get more toxic by the day. Across Nigeria, and taking the community I come from as a case study, women have always been leaders, it is not an imported concept. Many Historians would even argue that new religions and colonialism helped shrink women’s leadership opportunities.

I was thrilled when recently, Erelu Abiola Dosunmu, Erelu IV of Lagos was announced as the new Yeye Oodua by His Royal Majesty Ooni Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi. The role of the Yeye Oodua is extremely important. She is an adviser to royal fathers, peace advocate, community leader, as well as a multi-purpose ambassador. Erelu Abiola Dosunmu is a well-known business woman across many sectors, with vast international experience and immense social capital. She is an excellent choice, and whenever I see her, I am reminded of the Yoruba women we were taught about. The strong, independent, responsible, disciplined and goal-oriented women who worked hard, raised families and served their communities till they drew their last breath.

We still have women like that in abundance, but their voices are sometimes drowned out by a narrative that sees every successful woman as a threat to men and a dangerous commodity that must be stopped or controlled. It also does not help that a strange sub-culture has emerged that promotes success as the number of houses, cars, exotic vacations or amount of money you can spray at parties. There is also the baffling obsession with courting controversy at every opportunity just to be famous or ‘relevant’.

I was a young girl of 17 when Erelu Abiola Dosunmu became the Erelu of Lagos. I was glued to the television watching this beautiful, elegant young woman (she was in her thirties then) being given such a powerful position. She has always carried herself like the real Princess she is. Erelu Dosunmu is industrious, resourceful, elegant, understated and truly influential, she has always been relevant and I have never seen her embroiled in foolish adventures.

 As I joined her last week to celebrate her coronation as the Yeye Oodua which also coincided with her 74th birthday, I felt extremely proud to be a Yoruba woman and a Nigerian citizen. Yes, we have chaos and misery around us and we live in a time of worrying uncertainty.  Yet there are glimpses of hope. Tobi Amusan brought smiles to our faces and tears to our eyes as she powered her way to global fame. The Nigerian anthem never sounded better than when they played it for our own star girl. Young people are out there doing great things and breaking down all the obstacles in their way. If we are in a position to do so, let us help young people in our own orbits.

 The new Yeye Oodua also offers hope. She is in a position to bring back panache, class, mystery and integrity to royal circles in her new motherly role. In recent times, too many unsavory dramas have dogged royal courts, and it is hoped that she can make a difference. These are also times when we need to look at how to manage the preservation of positive cultural norms and values and deleting those that no longer serve the common good or are in breach of human rights. A God-fearing, progressive, well-respected and grounded Yeye Oodua can help navigate this conversation.

The famous King Sunny Ade track that essentially immortalized Erelu Abiola Dosunmu says that, ‘Bibire ko se fowora o ti daju, Ki a bini, ko to ki a tunra eni bi’, roughly translated as ‘Good breeding definitely cannot be bought. Even if you are born into greatness, you have to learn how to be great’. Congratulations Yeye Oodua. You have always been great, and I pray that you will continue to inspire women, girls, men and boys to greatness.

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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3 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Yeye Oodua

  1. Fisolami August 10, 2022 at 12:36 am

    Good breeding definitely can’t be bought

  2. Adenike alabi August 10, 2022 at 9:04 pm

    Good upbringing is a win for all children

  3. Iyanuoluwa Isinkaye August 15, 2022 at 7:49 pm

    God bless all the child’s Advocate.


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