EIGHTY-YEAR-OLD widely travelled Ifa priest, Dr. Ifagbenusola Atanda, spent the early part of his life in the United States of America. A trained surveyor, the octogenarian still finds time to travel around the globe to deliver lectures. At the Third International Congress on Oral Rehydration Therapy in Washington DC recently, he was invited by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a panelist, where he presented a paper titled: ‘The Involvement of Traditional Healers in CDD (Causes of Diarrhea Diseases)’. GBENGA ADERANTI had an encounter with him at his Ile Irunmole Centre where he talked about the secrets behind his youthful looks, why he does not want to grow old, his reason for being a monogamist, some of his nasty experiences in the U.S. and the misconceptions about traditional religion. Excerpts:

HOW do you feel to be 80?

I feel great. I’m thankful to Eledumare. I feel a little bit surprised. Surprised in the sense that when I was younger and I heard about people going 80, I used to think ’80? Wow! Will I get there? If I got there or when I got there, how would it look? Would I be able to do things I was doing when I was younger? Would I fit into society? I did not know that I would still be looking as I am right now. That is the surprising aspect of it. I know that whatever you are, whoever you are, it is not your personal making, it is the wish of Eledumare.

I feel great, I feel thankful that 80 is not the end of good activities, does not mean the end of joyous actions, does not mean the end of achievements, because at 80, as I am now, I’m still capable of doing many things in the area of my ambition in life. My ambition in life is similar to the law of Boys Scout: Law 1, Law 7, and Law 10. Law 1 of Scout says a Scout’s honour is to be trusted. At 80, I believe I can be trusted by anybody because when I was given the Asiwaju Awo of Lagos in 1986, they told me that elderly people were usually given that title. Why? Because elderly people can be trusted and I was young then. They could trust me now that I have become elderly. I can still be trusted at 80, which is Law 1 of Boys Scout.

Law 7 of the Boys Scout says a Scout obeys the laws of his parents, his patrol leader without question.  The first one is parents. I’m a traditionalist; I respect and obey the biddings of my ancestors very much. Law 10 of Boys Scout says a scout is clean in words, thoughts, and deeds. With Law 10, that is what I’m going to use till the end of my life.

When I was told that I was going to speak to an 80-year-old traditionalist, I thought I was going to meet an old man, but you are still looking fit. What is the secret?

You are what you want to make yourself. You have to decide what you want to make yourself; it has to be from your inner mind. From the time you are growing up, you have to see how you use yourself. If you spoil the body, the spirit goes out. If the spirit does not go out and you spoil the body, the body will be bad. That is the number one thing.

I am a babalawo (herbalist). I was initiated into Ifa. In Ifa, the most important thing is taboo; what you can do and what you cannot do, including eating and actions. I still go back to the law of scout; a scout must be in words, thoughts, and action. If I take care of those, automatically, it will give me the result I’m having now. Although God is great, you have to do your own part. You have to prepare for the time when you get older. I don’t pray to ever be old.

When my son introduced me somewhere and said meet my old man, I scolded him, don’t call me old man. Old is rickety, withered, almost useless; that is old. We pray to grow up, not to grow old.

What is the place of roots and herbs in your well-being?

The roots and herbs were provided to humanity by God for the use of human beings. Without this, you cannot take care of the body sufficiently, because the body needs nourishment to be taken care of and part of the nourishment is the use of roots and herbs. The traditional concoctions that you use are parts of roots and herbs. The foods you eat are roots and herbs, though they go through some processes. Till tomorrow, I will still take agbo. That is part of the roots and herbs. Even when you use some European medicines, it does not stop you from using roots and herbs.

You talked about having not to spoil your body. Can you be more specific?

Number one, when you are annoyed and you speak violence, that is the first step to destroying yourself, because every violent statement you make affects your heart directly and then you start to suffer for an offence you have not committed. Two, we believe that some messengers of God that go about and share what people say, they can judge you on that.

Does that mean you don’t get angry at all?

There are situations that you need to react to and people will know you are not happy about it. It is not only when you use your head to break the wall that people will know you are annoyed.

In my life, when there is a situation where I have to be annoyed, I will tell the person no is no, and in the second minute, I will leave the place.

Traditional religion is not as attractive as other faiths because of elements of fear that are keeping people away. Do you think that is correct?

It is an assumption that people run away from traditional religion because it is tough. Wisdom is very rare to come by, but madness is popular because of the human angle. No one wants to go through toughness. In traditional religion, if you disobey taboo, it kills. If it does not kill immediately, it is going to kill along the line. That is the only danger. If it is tough, let’s go the tough way so that we can have a better life. I will never advise that we abandon the tough ways our fathers started.

God created this world with fear. Fear that makes you tremble will straighten you, it will not kill you. When my Oluwo way of living, if I was phoning him, he was on the other side, I would say good morning sir and I would be prostrating. That is an honour. Automatically, his spirit will be blessing me where he is.

This paid off one time while I was in America.

I was taken to court for an offence; they call it misdemeanor. If anybody asks me about my worst experience in America, I will cite this. When I was in America, I was using an international driver’s licence until I got the resident card. I did not know that after getting the resident card, my international driver’s licence would be rendered useless after six months.

I was driving one night and the police stopped me because it was dead in the night and it was a weekend. They stop you dead in the night because they believed that you could be guilty of DUI: driving while you are drunk. That was what they stopped me for. But after doing all the tests and I was not drunk, they asked for my driver’s licence. I gave it to them, and they said ‘this is not a driver’s licence.’ I was shocked. They said, ‘You are a resident. Don’t you know that after six months, you can’t use this? I said I was sorry, I would do that. They said you had better do that, then they gave me a paper. I wanted to get back into the car and they said where are you going? I said I was going home. They said we told you that you cannot drive. They asked if I wanted to go to jail. I asked them how I would get home. They said they did not know about that. I had to call one of my good children to come and pick me up that dead of the night, around 2 am.

The girl now drove me home. The police knew my house. They were already around my house but I didn’t know, thinking that after they had left I would drive. By the time the door of the driver’s side opened, we just saw police cars beam their light at the car. But immediately they saw a lady coming out of the driver’s side of the car, they drove away.

As if that was not enough, they charged me with a criminal offence. I went to my lawyer and he advised that the best thing for me was to get a driver’s licence before the court date because it could be very terrible. He said it was an offence that could attract a jail term. I thought he was joking. I went through the hassle. I got a driver’s licence. The licence arrived a day before the court date.

I got to the court and we lined up. There were five of us for the same offence,  and they were showing us a film on their television to make us acquainted with the court proceedings, and the case they were showing was the case of driving without a driver’s licence. They said the penalty was you can be jailed, deported, or fined and the three could happen if you plead guilty. If you plead not guilty, you would have a lawyer and your lawyer will argue. If your lawyer has anything to debunk, that is fine. But if your lawyer is unable to convince the judge, you can go three ways.

At that moment, I had malaria, I had a headache, I had every damn thing. I was shaking. I was cold. That was the worst day of my life in America.

They had already said that I would be number three. The first and the second offenders would have gone into the dock, but the assistant registrar said no, you have to answer the way you sit down. I was the one that sat first because I got to the court very early. Meaning that I would not have a sample of somebody they had tried. Malaria became double, the headache became triple, and the cold increased. Then I remember my late Oluwo. God is my witness, I heard the voice of the Oluwo. He said, ‘Stop shaking, there is nothing they would do to you. You did not do it deliberately. You are not an ordinary person. Go in there, nothing will happen to you.’ The moment I heard that voice, the malaria went away, the cold vanished, the panicking stopped. God is my witness to what I’m saying here today. The next minute, my case was called, it was a white lady magistrate. She said Sola Olalekan Atanda. I said yes, that is my name. And she said what is your name? Because I trained in America, the way they do their things, when you believe you know a thing and they ask you again, you owe them the duty to repeat it because they are superior in that area. I said My name is  Sola Olalekan Atanda. She said thank you.  On so, so date …… She said, is that true? I said it was true and she said do you have a driver’s licence? I said I had a driver’s licence. She said can you show it to the court clerk? I gave it to the court clerk. The magistrate said for good justice, you are discharged and acquitted, so you can go in peace. My god child that followed me to court, Dr. Flora, said Papa, get out of that place. When I got out of the court, that was when I started weeping.

That was to show you what I called honour to Oluwo in the tradition that we have been talking about. If I was not close to Oluwo, how could a spirit talk to me and cleanse me? So how can someone tell me to drop that traditional religion, to drop that culture because it is tough? That will be sickness; that will be unwise. God is not stupid to have made us Africans, to have built Africa the way it is; to have set up its government the way it is.

Were you already a babalawo during that American experience?

Oh yes.

How do you feel each time your faith is degraded?

When my faith is degraded by other people, I pity them because they are ignorant. If they knew, they would not do so. If you see fire and you say it is beautiful until you touch it and it burns you, that is when you know. A lot of people have been brainwashed, deceived, just the way our forefathers were deceived by the Europeans. You cannot destroy the work of God, no matter what.

My fear is that in the next 20 to 30 years, all the things you are doing now will go into extinction. What is your take?

When a thing starts to go down and down, it may get to a place where it will stop. But by the time it gets to a rock and stops, then it will go back again. We are now on the rise. It was going down some time ago. If you see some books on ifa, they were written by white people. It is very much on the rise now. Ifa , Osun, osa are on the rise now in America, Brazil, and Cuba.

Terrorism is creeping into the Southwest. What can the traditionalists do to help? Why is it that they have not been able to do anything about it?

If there is going to be anything good, it has to come from the grassroots. When things are good, if there is no problem in the city, it means there is no problem in the local government, there is no problem in the city, and there is no country. Do we have that again? The kings are now numerous. They are just kings. You don’t even know how many kings are in a town. When you have a king, the king that is respected by whosoever, a governor, the kingship is a lifetime thing. A king is an orisa on its own. It has a spiritual body, a political body under him. When anything happens in the city, the king calls it two wings, the political and the spiritual. They have divination; we don’t want so, so in the boundaries of the city. They put whatever they have to put. They tell people not to go out on so and so day because we have reinforced. That crashed and we have to bring it back. No babalawo can do anything. Babalawo is not the king of the city. He can only protect his own temple, his own business or anybody that goes to him. Unless the old order is brought back; and it is very cheap if they do that.

But some people said the potency of spiritual power has gone with the past?

No, no, no there is nothing wrong with the potency unless you don’t see the material. Anything is potent if it is complete. It will not be potent if it is not complete.

Our problem is that the politicians have turned Obas into civil servants. They remove Obas anyhow and they impose anybody they want.

How did you become an ifa priest?

Whatever you are has been predestined. I was born into the home of a Muslim father and Muslim mother. But my mother was born of a grandmother of Oya faith. My great-grandmother was called Boyaduro because her mother had a lot of children who died at birth. She had only one child herself, a female, and that female had two children, my mother and her sister. She was very wealthy; the first Iyalode of Osogbo. Her prayer was to have a male on her line to inherit all the wealth because in those days, if you had no male child, all your things would go to the extended family.

She was prayerful. She was also the Erelu Agba of Osogbo, the biggest Ogboni woman in town. She could not do without divination. Prayers were made for her and my mother was pregnant. Unfortunately, some people did something to make sure she would not have a male child on her line. That was the suspicion. Her first child died on the day of the naming ceremony. They just woke up and saw that the boy was stiff. The person that came to do the naming ceremony did not even ask for the child to put water in his mouth. She believed that one of her relations who was a Muslim was part of the coup. So after they did the naming ceremony and they killed the goat, and they wanted to go with the goat, she stopped them and asked, ‘How would you do a naming ceremony without seeing the child? Which means you know what you people have done. Don’t take the goat alone, take the dead child too. This is the last time I will welcome you Muslims in my house. They left in shame before they buried the child.

Later, my mother was pregnant with me and the Oluwo said this boy coming is a Babalawo and nothing can happen to him. He will redeem your name and be a child like a million for you. That was the prediction of ifa. Things were going well, but when it came to eight months that a child was to come, my mother was not having any feelings. The ninth month, I did not come. My great-grandmother started panicking. Divination was done again, and ifa said Ifangbenusolalowo ni, meaning the royalty in the womb coming in his own time.

I was born about the 10th month. I was already grown before coming out to the extent that I could not walk until they took me to River Niger where the water was used to bathe my leg before I could walk. That was in Zungeru, Niger State. But by that time, because of the religious thing, they were calling me Gbenusola. My father named me Ganiyu but my mother’s side called me Gbenusola, not Ifagbenusola.

I went to school. Things were good for me with my great-grandmother. I was eight years old before she died. I was taken to my father’s house. Here they were Muslims but I was not going to the quranic school because before my great-grandmother died, they took me to quranic school. The alfa wanted to beat a person and the cain touched me. They had to lock up the alfa. Since then, my great grandmother said anybody that took me to quranic school would meet her quickly. That was why I did not go to a quranic school.

I was growing well. I was always having an interest in traditional things, maybe because of the things that were done for me. I did not realise that I would practice the ifa thing until I got to secondary school. I remember in primary school, each time we were acting in a play, I would play the role of a babalawo. I was doing it well, or playing the role of a policeman.

Until I left Osogbo in 1966 and went to Lagos, I was told there was no place I could go except the child of the person that did the divination when my mother was pregnant. He was the son of babalawo of my great-grandmother, Babalawo. That man did not call me Gbenusola; he called me Ifagbenusola and told me to start my study.

But you said you did Survey?

Yes, I went to school. From secondary school, I wanted to be a military officer. They didn’t sponsor me because my family members didn’t like soldier. I said okay let me be the police. My father supported that. I was supposed to go to Southern police college and, after three months, to Sandhurst, to spend 18 months and come back as an inspector. Everything was settled. That was in 1966. I got to Lagos, the day I was to report to Southern Police College, 2nd January 1966, that was the day the coup started in Nigeria That was what foiled my ambition to go into police college. If you can google the police trainees to resume that day, my name should be there.

When I got home I became sick because my ambition was dashed. That was why I was taken to Oluwo. He said why does he even need to join the police. He is a babalawo from the womb. He said he would give me something that would give me lots of money and he took me to Survey school. He took me to federal survey. Three months later, we were taken to the School of Survey Oyo. That was how the survey thing started. I did basic courses and advanced courses.

All along while I was doing surveying, I was doing some other studies on my own. I was doing everything in the mystical area. I wanted to be a psychic aside from being a babalawo. I took different courses, including estate management. I have a PhD in Metaphysics.

Incidentally,it is difficult to see people in your position with one wife. Why monogamy?

What fate does, nobody can change. It is not compulsory for a traditionalist to marry two wives. In fact, ifa said so. It is only one wife that is the best in a man’s house.  When it becomes two, they become a problem. When they say babalawo can have many wives, there are situations when they say this is ifa’s wife and they bring the woman to you. She is not your wife; that woman has come to marry ifa. Your own wife is the one you married, not the one they brought to ifa. That is what people don’t understand.

Could your contact with western culture be responsible for your decision to stick with one wife?

The decision to marry one wife has nothing to do with western culture. I don’t regret marrying one wife.

How did you become an ifa priest?

Whatever you are has been predestined. I was born into the home of a Muslim father and Muslim mother. But my mother was born of a grandmother of Oya faith. My great-grandmother was called Boyaduro because her mother had a lot of children who died at birth. She had only one child herself, a female, and that female had two children, my mother and her sister. She was very wealthy; the first Iyalode of Osogbo. Her prayer was to have a male on her line to inherit all the wealth because in those days, if you had no male child, all your things would go to the extended family.

She was prayerful. She was also the Erelu Agba of Osogbo, the biggest Ogboni woman in town. She could not do without divination. Prayers were made for her and my mother was pregnant. Unfortunately, some people did something to make sure she would not have a male child on her line. That was the suspicion. Her first child died on the day of the naming ceremony. They just woke up and saw that the boy was stiff. The person that came to do the naming ceremony did not even ask for the child to put water in his mouth. She believed that one of her relations who was a Muslim was part of the coup. So after they did the naming ceremony and they killed the goat, and they wanted to go with the goat, she stopped them and asked, ‘How would you do a naming ceremony without seeing the child? Which means you know what you people have done. Don’t take the goat alone, take the dead child too. This is the last time I will welcome you Muslims in my house. They left in shame before they buried the child.

Later, my mother was pregnant with me and the Oluwo said this boy coming is a Babalawo and nothing can happen to him. He will redeem your name and be a child like a million for you. That was the prediction of ifa. Things were going well, but when it came to eight months that a child was to come, my mother was not having any feelings. The ninth month, I did not come. My great-grandmother started panicking. Divination was done again, and ifa said Ifangbenusolalowo ni, meaning the royalty in the womb coming in his own time.

I was born about the 10th month. I was already grown before coming out to the extent that I could not walk until they took me to River Niger where the water was used to bathe my leg before I could walk. That was in Zungeru, Niger State. But by that time, because of the religious thing, they were calling me Gbenusola. My father named me Ganiyu but my mother’s side called me Gbenusola, not Ifagbenusola.

I went to school. Things were good for me with my great-grandmother. I was eight years old before she died. I was taken to my father’s house. Here they were Muslims but I was not going to the quranic school because before my great-grandmother died, they took me to quranic school. The alfa wanted to beat a person and the cain touched me. They had to lock up the alfa. Since then, my great grandmother said anybody that took me to quranic school would meet her quickly. That was why I did not go to a quranic school.

I was growing well. I was always having an interest in traditional things, maybe because of the things that were done for me. I did not realise that I would practice the ifa thing until I got to secondary school. I remember in primary school, each time we were acting in a play, I would play the role of a babalawo. I was doing it well, or playing the role of a policeman.

Until I left Osogbo in 1966 and went to Lagos, I was told there was no place I could go except the child of the person that did the divination when my mother was pregnant. He was the son of babalawo of my great-grandmother, Babalawo. That man did not call me Gbenusola; he called me Ifagbenusola and told me to start my study.

But you said you did Survey?

Yes, I went to school. From secondary school, I wanted to be a military officer. They didn’t sponsor me because my family members didn’t like soldier. I said okay let me be the police. My father supported that. I was supposed to go to Southern police college and, after three months, to Sandhurst, to spend 18 months and come back as an inspector. Everything was settled. That was in 1966. I got to Lagos, the day I was to report to Southern Police College, 2nd January 1966, that was the day the coup started in Nigeria That was what foiled my ambition to go into police college. If you can google the police trainees to resume that day, my name should be there.

When I got home I became sick because my ambition was dashed. That was why I was taken to Oluwo. He said why does he even need to join the police. He is a babalawo from the womb. He said he would give me something that would give me lots of money and he took me to Survey school. He took me to federal survey. Three months later, we were taken to the School of Survey Oyo. That was how the survey thing started. I did basic courses and advanced courses.

All along while I was doing surveying, I was doing some other studies on my own. I was doing everything in the mystical area. I wanted to be a psychic aside from being a babalawo. I took different courses, including estate management. I have a PhD in Metaphysics.

Incidentally,it is difficult to see people in your position with one wife. Why monogamy?

What fate does, nobody can change. It is not compulsory for a traditionalist to marry two wives. In fact, ifa said so. It is only one wife that is the best in a man’s house.  When it becomes two, they become a problem. When they say babalawo can have many wives, there are situations when they say this is ifa’s wife and they bring the woman to you. She is not your wife; that woman has come to marry ifa. Your own wife is the one you married, not the one they brought to ifa. That is what people don’t understand.

Could your contact with western culture be responsible for your decision to stick with one wife?

The decision to marry one wife has nothing to do with western culture. I don’t regret marrying one wife.