Talking history with Dr. Funso Afolayan

In the Nigerian village of Iwo, measures had to be taken to ensure that specific children of the town would not die and return to the spirit world too soon. Ceremonial shackles would be placed around their ankles to weigh them to the earth and chants would be voiced to persuade the spirit world not to take them back. Before Funso Afolayan was born on July 3, 1957 in the village of Iwo, his parents recognized that this might not be a normal child coming into existence. His parents believed that he was an Abiku.

According to the village’s beliefs, Abiku children are spirit children who choose to be born into the world, but only for a short period of time. They choose to come into the world for a few months or possibly a few years, and then they decide to go back to the spirit world by passing away at a very young age. In the Yoruba language, “Bi” means “to give birth, and “Ku” means “to die.” In this belief, these children are literally “born to die.”

“The child is not here to stay,” says Afolayan. “The child just came here to have fun, you know, have fun for a couple of years and then go back.”

Before he was born, his mother gave birth to four different children. All of them died very early, the oldest one only lasting about a year and a few months.

“The death of four kids in rapid succession, one after another, made my parents…conclude that this is actually the same child that keeps coming back again and again and keeps dying,” says Afolayan. “So when I came, the conclusion was that I was that child reincarnating myself in the same woman.”

In order to keep Afolayan from dying and returning to the spirit world, his parents took him to a “diviner,” a spiritual leader that actively solves problems through a connection to the spirit world. Here, his family performed rituals that would inhibit Afolayan from leaving and returning to the spirit world. The diviner and his family made incisions into his skin under his eyes. They then placed medicinal herbs into these cuts to make it difficult for Afolayan to make a passage back into the spirit world. Afolayan still has the scars from these incisions faintly gracing his skin under his eyes.

“The purpose of the rituals is to entice, encourage, or compel the child to stay,” says Afolayan. “Or, if the child does not agree, you can also direct those rituals to the spirit world to make it difficult for the child to go back.”

Afolayan was the first of his mother’s children to survive through infancy. His name was given to him to protect his being. His full name, Folorunso, is a shortened version of a sentence in Yoruba, “Fun Olorun So.” In Yoruba, “Fun,” means gift, “Olorun,” is god, and “So” means to watch or protect. His name indicates that this child is given over to God to watch and protect so that he does not return to the spirit world, unlike his siblings before.

“Of course, in the modern day, people will explain it as infant mortality. They will say this is just the people’s way of explaining high incidents of infant mortality,” says Afolayan.

“They need a metaphysical way to explain a deficient medical system that makes kids…die early.”

Afolayan grew up in his village of Iwo in Northern Yorubaland, the traditional region of the Yoruba people. His parents were cocoa farmers, and did not live in the Iwo village. Therefore, Afolayan was raised in a house with his grandfather, his siblings, and his grandfather’s seven wives.

“I had always assumed that we would have all of this, that this would always be with us.” - Afolayan

“Every [wife] was considered grandmother,” says Afolayan, “cause that is the culture. They are all your grannies.” His grandfather, Afolayan Orileola, was an extremely important figure in Iwo. He was the Advisor to the King, a Diviner, an Herbalist, and the Head of Hunters.

Due to his high stature, his first name was eventually converted into his last name, so that it would carry on through generations. In their village, and herbalist was like a doctor and a pharmacist combined into one. The herbalist would diagnose the patient, and also provide the medicinal herbs and make the medicine to treat the patient. As a child, Afolayan and his friends were entrusted to gather the herbs for the medicines.

“We would go to this place which was about close to a mile from the town, and we would harvest whatever he needed,” says Afolayan.

In the traditional system, the hunters were the warriors of the village. They protected the town and also supplied meat for the community. “I think the most significant part, the biggest impression, was he was also a diviner,” says Afolayan.

“For me, that was the most fascinating aspect of this life.” In his village, people would seek out the diviners to help them solve their problems. According to Afolayan, “they are able to see into the world that is unseen, in a way that ordinary people don’t always see.”

These problems were not always physical. According to Afolayan, “people come with problem of having bad luck, misfortune, failure in business, failure in marriage or relationship, or failure in work.”

The diviner would assess the problem, then consult with the spirit world to work with the people to solve their problems. In order to connect to the spirit world, the diviners would perform mystical rituals. For example, the diviners would create a chain with palm knots attached to it. They would throw the chain onto the ground. How the palm knots landed would tell them which “odu” to consult.

An Odu is a chant used to interpret solutions to ailments. Afolayan recalls, “It would be kind of a solemn ceremony, because you know there is a kind of interaction and engagement with the divine or the supernatural. He’s making connections with the spirit world, and you are aware of that. So you maintained a kind of solemn silence as you watch what is going on.”

“It was kind of extraordinary. I wish I had paid more attention,” says Afolayan, reflecting back on his time observing the rituals. “I had always assumed that we would have all of this, that this would always be with us.”

During the 1950’s and 60’s, Nigeria was engaged in a time of extreme political unrest. Nigeria had gained independence from British rule in 1960. However, the politicians that took over from the British did not manage the country well. They lacked experience, mismanaged the economy, and did not know how to run a democratic system. Various political parties used this mismanagement to their advantage. They capitalized on ethno-religious divisions in order to gain power in Nigeria. “You have to keep switching sides almost immediately,” recalls Afolayan.

“When this group came, you quickly tell them you are supporting them. You break out their badge and you carry their flag and you wear their uniform and you keep dancing for them. So when the other group came, you take that uniform off and put on the next one.”

“They are the kind of politics ‘either you are for me or you are against me, and if you are against me, then everything I can do to destroy you, I will do so,’” says Afolayan.

Occasionally, political groups would come to Iwo in the middle of the night, forcing the community to flee the village in panic.

“The entire village would be empty because you don’t know whether they are coming to attack you or coming to kill you,” recalls Afolayan.

“It was a very difficult, turbulent, and unstable period. And growing up as a child, you cannot forget that memory,” says Afolayan.

“I mean, if you had to wake up, 2 AM in the middle of the night and run into the bush and stay there for the next 5-6 hours before they send the message ‘OK, they are all gone,’ you cannot forget those kinds of things.”

Despite this political turmoil in their country, the people of Iwo still found happiness, hope, and spirituality in their religion. Each year, during the peak of the dry season in Nigeria, the people of Iwo gather to celebrate their village’s god, Awoji.

The celebration begins a few days before, with sacrifices of animals and food, dances, and masquerades. Then, on the morning of the sacred day, everyone gathers in the center of the town and walks about a mile into the hills surrounding the village, to the grove in the mountain. During the march, the villagers were dancing spontaneously, drumming excitedly, and singing enthusiastically.

“We would hear voices,” says Afolayan, “maybe people are making the voices, but they could sound like the voice of the spirits talking to the people of the community.”

“It was a very difficult, turbulent, and unstable period. And growing up as a child, you cannot forget that memory,”- Afolayan

Then, the final sacrifice was made, and the entire village would wait for the rain—at the height of the dry season.

According to Afolayan, “At the end of the veneration, it must rain. Because without rain, it means the whole world is upside down. The gods have not accepted our sacrifice. And every year, it rained.”

Usually, it would begin raining while the feast after the sacrifice is ensuing.

“The eating would be going on, and, somehow, somewhere, during that period, there would be rain,” says Afolayan. The village would rejoice! They would all run from the mountain back to the village.

“Everyone would be waving [the palm leaves] and dancing, and singing, and celebrating, and almost making the declaration, ‘we’ve had a good year, we are bringing in a new year of prosperity, of progress, of good health,’” recalls Afolayan.

“And it’s after I’ve grown up I keep asking myself, ‘how did it rain every year?’ I mean, why was there no year that it did not rain?”

Funso Afolayan moved to Ile Ife in 1977 to pursue his education at the University of Ife, now known as Obafemi Awolowo University. He attained his undergraduate degree in History with a minor in Philosophy, then went on to pursue his masters in History with a minor in International Affairs as well as Anthropology. He then achieved his Ph.D. in History. He then became a professor at the Universtiy of Ife until 1993.

Afolayan then spent the Spring semester of 1993 at Amherst college, where he was awarded a fellowship for 6 months. He then accepted a one-year position to teach African History at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Since this would become a three-year position, Afolayan sought to relocate his family to the United States. However, the United States government would not grant his family a visa, because his job was not as permanent as required.

“I couldn’t get my family here, so that was now a problem,” says Afolayan.

This forced him to pursue a more permanent job, which brought him to UNH, where he has been teaching since 1996.

“I never thought I was going to come and live in this country. It never even occurred to me once. I believe if anybody had told me two or three years before I come here that I could be living here I’d say ‘no, it’s not possible,” he remarks, chuckling.

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