A professor of Indigenous African Religion at the Harvard Divinity School, Jacob Olupona once said that “African spirituality acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life and, therefore, African religion cannot be separated from mundane’’.
This statement underscores the belief of many, especially the cultural nationalists, that indigenous African religions are by nature plural and usually informed by one’s ethnic identity. For instance, the Yoruba religion has historically been centered in south-western Nigeria, the Igbo in South-eastern Nigeria and the Zulu in Southern Africa.
Research has shown that the Yoruba traditional religion is one of the world’s most influential, as it claims to have about a hundred million adherents globally. These are in places such as Togo, Brazil, Columbia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Grenada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Guyana as well as St. Kitts and St. Vincent. These are some of the millions of devotees of the Yoruba traditional religions who supplicate to ‘Obaluaye’ and Olodumare (The Supreme Being) through various oracle channels.
According to the Association of African Traditional Religions in Nigeria and overseas, AATREN, Lagos State alone has an estimated six million members. However, indigenous African religions had been falling out of favor and practice, since the amount of enthusiasts seem to be declining as modern religions have spread and gained influence throughout the continent.
To stem the tide of decline, the Lagos State Chapter of the AATREN has recently renewed the call for the declaration of the 20th of August annually as a public holiday, to be set aside to commemorate the ‘Isese Day’ whereby faithful can celebrate as believers of dominant modern religions do.
The Association expressed the pain of marginalization and denial of a special day due to unnecessary stereotypes and painting of the age long traditional African religion negative in favour of the modern faiths.
Hence, to redress the situation and in the spirit of equity and justice, AATREN enjoins Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to consider the renewed call to declare August 20th yearly as ‘Isese’ Day to ascribe the necessary importance to the day as part of efforts to continually promote and preserve the irreplaceable Yoruba indigenous religion, customs and tradition.
To buttress the AATREN position, Director, Arts and Culture in the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture, Mrs. Saidat Olaitan Otulana, stated that declaration of ‘Isese Day’ will influence home-grown tourism, saying the State Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture could explore the possibilities for collaboration with such relevant prospective partners for the promotion of the Day within and outside the country for the benefit of adherents and the State economy.
Apart from various initiatives ongoing which include the usage of the Yoruba language for its proceedings every Thursday, the Lagos State House of Assembly is also supportive of the renewed call to protect the foundation of indigenous religion.
The lawmaker representing Badagry constituency 11, Honorable David Setonji, in a motion titled ‘Need to Preserve our Traditional Religion’, has supported the ‘Isese Day’ crusade. The Honourable, in a bid to substantiate the motion, cited the aspect of the constitution which allows an individual the freedom of conscience and religion, including the freedom to change his religion or belief, either alone in the community with others, and in public or in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Similarly, Director in the Department of Creative Industry and Heritage at the Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture, Mrs. Mofoluke Oluwasanmi said ‘’the African traditional religions and celebrations have a social purpose to promote cultural values as well as enrich the heritage of followers alike”.
Although people who wholly practice the African indigenous religions are about ten percent of the African population, studies point to the fact that some followers of modern religions still participate in one form of indigenous religious activities or the other (either directly or indirectly) which further testifies to the enduring stance of traditional religions, since millions of Africans across the globe are becoming more open to blending traditional practices to the modern religions.
According to experts in African cultural studies, civilization has not and cannot stop the influence of indigenous African spirituality due to the pluralistic nature of African –traditional religions, considering its dynamism, as they present a worldview that has sustained and enriched societies and the continent for centuries through its practices, history and metaphysics.
Diviners for example have an extensive access of literary corpus –‘’oduifa’’ and deep information covering medicine, science, cosmology and metaphysics which provides a blueprint for robust discussions that would transform thought leadership in community relations, interfaith dialogue towards societal advancement.
It is, thus, believed, in some circles, that indigenous African traditional religions, beliefs and practices will always be relevant, no matter the level of modernisation.
Therefore, for the adherents of the faith, the declaration of the 20th of August as a public holiday in commemoration of the ‘Isese’ Day would. No doubt, be a major breakthrough in their desire for cultural rebirth.
Oladeinde is Head, Public Affairs Unit, Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture