Dr Olukoya Ogen recently joined us to lead a conversation on religion and religious tolerance in Yorubaland, south west Nigeria.
In this interview Dr Ogen provides further insight into his practice and his thoughts on what a tolerant Africa looks like.
How did you carve out an expertise in African religion and ideas surrounding religious tolerance?
My PhD thesis focused on the pre-colonial socio-cultural and economic history of the Ikale people of southeastern Yorubaland. During the course of the study, I explored the interplay and overarching influence of traditional religious practices on virtually all aspects of Ikale’s precolonial economy and society as well as the impact of the introduction of Christianity into Ikaleland.
During the course of the PhD and even after, I also did extensive study on the Yoruba cultural influences in the diaspora especially the influence of Yoruba religions in the diaspora. My two visits and interactions with practitioners of Yoruba religions in remote villages on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Brazil in 2008 and 2010 respectively further sharpened my interest in Yoruba religious influences in the diaspora. Four seminar/conference presentations and three publications have come out from these endeavours. These are: The Yoruba in History, Earliest Times to 1987, AAU History Series, Adekunle Ajasin University, 2003; Historicising African Contributions to the Emancipation Movement: The Haitian Revolution, 1791-1805 https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/5684/ 2008 and ‘‘Rethinking the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1805’’ Ibadan Journal of History, Special Edition Commemorating University of Ibadan @ 65, 2013). Similarly, in 2011, an American post doctoral grant enabled me to conduct field studies in several Yoruba inhabited districts of Sierra Leone. Fourah Bay College, Freetown provided me with generous academic hospitality and I was able to witness and interact with several practitioners of Yoruba traditional religion in Sierra Leone.
Interestingly, shortly after the PhD, I won two UK post-doctoral fellowships and was able to spend considerable time at the Centre of African Studies, University of London and the Department of African Studies, University of Birmingham. These postdocs gave me the opportunity to sharpen the focus of my research and unfettered access to British archival holdings on Yorubaland especially the CMS holdings at the University of Birmingham. But even more significant is the mentoring role of my UK academic host, Insa Nolte of the University of Birmingham. As an Africanist with special bias for Yoruba cultural and political studies, our shared interests in south-eastern Yoruba studies drew us together and eventually she extended an invitation asking me to participate as a Co-Investigator and the Nigerian Project Director of a five year (2012-2017) European Research Council sponsored research project on everyday religious encounter in Yorubaland. The study entailed a large scale survey of the nature of religious interactions across Yorubaland. The result of our findings were presented for feedback at several workshops and conferences in Yorubaland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The first major publication from this research endeavour is Beyond Religious Tolerance: Muslim, Christian and Traditionalist Encounters in an African Town. Thus, my heavy involvement in this research project was the turning point in my gradual metamorphosis from a socio-cultural historian to an expert in Yoruba religious history.
What would you say was the single most significant impact of the arrival of new religions, namely Christianity and Islam, on African society?
The bastardization, debasement and desecration of African socio-cultural value systems and general loss of confidence in our traditional religion and African indigenous knowledge system appear to me to be the most significant impacts of the incursion of foreign religions on African societies.
What are the key features of a truly pluralist society in your opinion?
- Mutual respect and tolerance
- Interfaith cooperation
- Presence of an effective mechanism for quick resolution of potential religious clashes or conflicts
- Secularism and freedom to practice one’s faith without any form of coercion or harassment.
Related Article: Dr Olukoya Ogen Made a Fellow of the Historical Society of Nigeria
What role do you think education has to play in fostering religious tolerance in the national context?
Education should embrace the teaching of African history and culture especially African traditional religion. This approach is likely to shore up the confidence of Africans and checkmate the complete erosion of Africa’s traditional value system of love, mutual respect and religious tolerance.
You recently joined us for a conversation on Pan-African education, what role do you think African religion can play in fostering Pan-African identity?
African religion is very tolerant by nature, it accommodates and unites. Ifa for instance is an international religion that has the propensity of uniting Africans if people are well sensitised and oriented about
You recently gave a lecture on religious tolerance in Yorubaland, what did you want people to get out of the conversation?
I woud have liked our participants to appreciate the beauty of Yoruba culture especially its omoluwabi ethos that are well exemplified in Yoruba traditional religious practices, its cultural resilience and its innate potentials for engendering unity and rapid socio-economic and political development.