Olabiyi Babalola J. Yai: Yoruba Studies Expert and Polymath

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Olabiyi Babalola Yai, linguist, cultural critic, philosopher, Yoruba studies expert and distinguished professor passed recently after a brief illness. His death on December 5, 2020, is huge loss to his family members and numerous friends and associates all over the world for several reasons, the most obvious being that he possessed deep reserves of knowledge on several areas of intellection combining both ancient and modern traditions. He was also a humanist who identified with the sociopolitical underdog and stood for epistemological and cultural pluralism in the quest to attain human excellence. Excellence within this understanding was not only achievable but it is also necessary to appreciate that the quest to attain it was itself a life-transforming experience that was just as significant as the ultimate goal.

The Importance of Theory

Yai initially achieved international recognition with his landmark essay, “Theory and Practice in African Philosophy: The Poverty of Speculative Philosophy”, first published in the University of Ife’s (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Second Order in 1977. As with many of his academic admirers, this impactful paper serves as my introduction to a slim but extremely powerful oeuvre. I still read it until today for its contorted and multivalent magnificence. It has the effect of the sensory dissonance caused by a crack of lightning. It always seems like an unexpected electrical charge aimed at the unsuspecting heart and brain. Ideologically speaking, in that groundbreaking essay, Yai located his existential and theoretical moorings and these could be reduced—albeit obliquely—to the following themes: a valorisation of African indigenous knowledge systems, a repudiation of intellectual elitism, a leftist epistemological orientation, and an irreverence towards complacent intellectual heroes.

I was immediately enthralled by that paradigm-threatening piece that prided unevenness, roughness and dissonance as prized conceptual virtues. Yet, these unusual attributes are never placed above sound epistemological logic; a logic that is invariably deployed to validate African traditional values and epistemic regimes. At Ibadan, where I had studied, Yai’s conceptual novelties weren’t really taught and the approach there was altogether different, being more or less beholden to Kwasi Wiredu’s highly influential insights. Yai’s work would have seemed too controversial, too conceptually volatile and rather undomesticated in a context that valued ‘clarity’ and ‘conceptual rigour’. Even Paulin Hountondji’s scientism and espousal of philosophy’s avowed universalism had trouble gaining acceptance at the Ibadan school of philosophy and was kept at arm’s length although there was mild suspicion that there might be some merit in his approach.

Yai’s counter-paradigmatic thought and vision could simply have found no place within the comparatively staid Ibadan school. And so the metaphor of a bolt of lightning I adopted in relation to the first time I experienced his work seems totally appropriate. In order to experience the effect and revelation of counter-paradigmatic work, I had to grapple with texts such as Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature when a much closer and eventually more useful proposition had been nearby at Ife. Ife—Yai’s major base—as a whole, was highly suspect to the Ibadan crowd and the closest the latter got to the former was through the writings of Barry Hallen and J.O. Sodipo, particularly in works like Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy which nonetheless could not be regarded without a bit of tongue-in-cheek intellectual curiosity laced with bemusement. Even within that specific academic context (Ife), Yai’s “Theory and Practice of African Philosophy” stood apart in engaging Hegel, Marx, Gramsci, Hountondji and Wande Abimbola all in the same breath. In so doing, he provided an intellectual tenor that was undoubtedly quite distinct within the highly idiosyncratic Ife school. It also exhibited an eclecticism that remained with Yai until the end of his days.

Indeed, just as with the late Harvard professor Abiola Irele, Yai’s eclecticism and cosmopolitanism were never in doubt. He had studied European languages at the prestigious Sorbonne in France like his equally globally accomplished compatriot, Paulin J. Hountondji, who became his intellectual sparring partner. There had been tremendous pressure mounted by the French authorities for Yai to stick with learning and teaching the French language and linguistics which would probably have advanced his career considerably. Instead, he chose to return to West Africa, the University of Ibadan specifically, to specialise in Yoruba linguistics. After the completion of his studies, he taught at Ibadan, Ife, Benin and the University of Florida where he retired as emeritus professor. He compiled a dictionary in Yoruba, composed well-regarded essays on world philosophy, art and culture and then went on to serve as Benin Republic’s Ambassador Delegate to UNESCO in Paris. He also subsequently served as chairperson of the organisation’s executive board.

I first worked with Professor Yai when he contacted me half a decade ago to participate in the ‘epistemological forum’ of the UNESCO General History of Africa, volume IX, project which he headed along with Martial Ze Belinga of Cameroon as co-coordinator. As for me, I embarked upon another journey of intellection and enlightenment. Even the manner he had approached me was a masterclass of an introduction all by itself. I had initially been made to understand I would be working on the illustrious Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, on whom I had already written a book. I had merely thought I would be engaging in a rehash of the old ideas I had explored in my book. How wrong was I! Yai expertly nudged me in a direction I was least expecting but one that has proved to be exceedingly crucial. Yai was interested in African philosophical concepts, concepts that had been occluded and derided by trappings of modernity as well as colonialism and its numerous legacies.

In embarking upon this necessary journey, Yai had empowered me ideologically and conceptually. He also did so with stringent standards and utmost rigour. He made me write my paper at least six times without my realising it. The great teacher and master that he was, he never made you feel the drudgery of work and its untold frustrations; rather, each time I had to re-write the draft, it seemed like a necessary and vital initiation into ever more refined and recondite chambers of knowledge. Yai was a master and repository of arcane knowledge and with the right amount of patience, one was ushered onto horizons replete with enormous epistemic wealth and also a cultural inheritance that seemed almost limitless with possibilities. No other editor had ever made me go through at least six drafts of an essay and managed to make it such a rich and rewarding experience. It seems almost miraculous to me now when I think of how I had embarked on a journey that led to the culmination and realisation of my latent ideological inclinations as well as my intellectual intuitions without having an inkling as to what was to happen.

During the year of the Covid 19 pandemic, we had discussions on several topics frequently by phone: Cheikh Anta Diop, Abiola Irele, Wole Soyinka, Mahatma Gandhi, Wole Soyinka and of course, Paulin Hountondji. We talked about the places of these authors and thinkers in African intellectual history and world culture.

I experienced a mild kind of shock the first time I had heard his voice. Sturdy in physical stature, he looked every bit an important Yoruba personage; in most circumstances, he might have even been considered a traditional chieftain who was well respected in the community but this didn’t come across in his voice; keening, ferreting, as if seeking nuggets of wisdom it might have missed previously in its haste. Or perhaps the wear and tear of teaching a highly tonal African language—Yoruba—to
“tone deaf American students” had taken their toll. I remember he had to have a surgical procedure on his vocal chords which might have affected the solidity and original timbre of his voice. But one quality I never failed to notice and which was ingrained within him until the end was a consistent intellectual curiosity and an implacable zest for life. And the end, when it came, seemed as quick, swift and irreversible as an eagle’s majestic descent.

The Re-Discovery of Ifa

Before then, he had asked me when I was coming to Cotonou to experience the colourful festival that celebrates Benin’s remarkable cultural and spiritual heritage during the month of January. I had been making plans to earmark the funds for such a trip. We discussed the plans in long conversations between 2 am and 5 am. I never got the impression that his health was ailing. And then suddenly he began to complain about lower back ache. We discussed about various kinds of agbo (herbal potions). And then he stopped answering my Whatsapp messages which left me deeply worried. Finally, the news of his passing reached me. My deepest regret is that I wasn’t able to visit the master at the next edition of the Benin heritage and spiritual festival. I will miss our discussions on the differences and similarities between Vodun and Ifa, conversations about cultural authenticity and doubtful cultural assimilation and such matters. Perhaps even more than his great friend Abiola Irele, he exhibited no airs or ego when dispensing gems of arcane knowledge. Indeed, an iroko has gone on to join the ancestors.

Yai’s last major paper, “Understanding Africa: African Perspectives and Epistemological Considerations” which he delivered under the auspices of the India International Centre before the pandemic struck revisits his central intellectual concerns. Typically, he begins by explaining the role of Yoruba women poets called yungba. These women in spite of operating in a solely monarchial context are, nonetheless, unfailingly compelled to speak the truth to power regardless of whose ox is gored. Yai, in turn, pledges to assume this role of speaking the truth about our subpar African governments since the dawn of independence.

He then proceeds to introduce and lend validation to another concept, Global Africa, which enables him to broaden the discursive scope of his paper by drawing examples from Asia, Latin America, Haiti and Africa. Such a transcontinental perspective necessitates a re-consideration of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, Kurukan Fuga, Ker Issa, Ifa, the Ubuntu texts, the Mvet inter alia. In this manner, he is able to establish transcontinental continuities that affirm the African presence in a positive cultural and epistemological light.

Indeed one of the major hallmarks of Yai’s scholarship is the recuperation and validation of suppressed African knowledge systems. Before the term indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) became fashionable he was already engaged in the field, outlining its theoretical possibilities and laying down its lexical properties. And because of his knowledge of, and familiarity with, philosophical discourse and traditions-both ancient and modern- there was nothing forced or artificial about his approach which is a far cry from the desperate instrumentalist streak of the ‘professional’ advocates of IKS. In any given area of discourse or research, Yai was always able to locate the appropriate concepts and theories and their inevitable historicities which he employed in a reasoned and effective fashion.

Conceptually and theoretically, Yai may never again have attained the ragged heights of “Theory and Practice of African Philosophy” but arguably what was lost on that score was recouped in greater compactness of conceptual vision, refinements in theory and language and ultimately, greater psychic symmetry which seemed to reflect more contentment with himself, life generally, and his work.

And yet we ought to remember that philosophy was merely one of the disciplines he mastered amongst others with languages, linguistics, cultural studies, art history and criticism as his major specialties. At the very beginning, a transdisciplinary tendency was already evident and this trend merely deepened as his career progressed. In addition, it lent his scholarship a polymathy that is both immensely refreshing as well as transgressive even though it wasn’t exactly meant to be faddish. Indeed there is nothing modish about re-discovering the humbling mysteries of Ifa and its almost infinite range and possibilities. Instead the protean dimensions of such an esteemed divination system required an unforgiving and enervating quest to return to the basics which, in fact, is never basic.

At every opportunity he got, Yai let it be known that he began his training and search for knowledge at the feet of village elders and sages. And this training, he never failed to point out, was every bit as significant as his Sorbonne education. In this regard, his epistemological range and flexibility, and his multicultural and multilingual endowments were simply remarkable. He had acquired an immense amount of knowledge about Euro-American cultures but this was never done at the expense of his indigenous Yoruba culture and its allied and accompanying formations. He was also versed in the texts of Lusophonism and Afro-Brazilian cultures and traditions which he was able to interrogate at the global level before eventually linking them up with their original African roots. Vodun and Ifa are also indisputably part of our rich cultural mosaic and ought to be preserved and honoured as vital cornerstones of our collective heritage. Yai’s life and scholarship reflected this daunting challenge and responsibility in every word that he spoke and every word he wrote.

Yai planted several seeds all around the world, in Benin, Nigeria, Florida, Salvador de Bahia, Paris, Birmingham, Mozambique, and Angola etc. He did so without undue flamboyance and self-aggrandisement but he managed to leave his cultural and intellectual footprint in those various cities and countries, traces that not only linger in those places but also in numerous hearts and minds, across a vast demotic tapestry that links Africa to its multiple diasporas.

About the author

Sanya Osha

Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011) and Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012), On a Weather-beaten Couch (2015) among other publications. He currently resides in South Africa.

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