2.2a(iii) Summary of Ann O’Hear, “Oriki and the History of Slavery in Ilorin, Nigeria,” in African Slaves, African Masters: Politics, Memories, Social Life, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, and Martin Klein, 153-174. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press (Tubman Series), 2017.
[See endnote 4, p. 168 and endnote 56, pp. 171-72. Please note: The Dr. Ann O’Hear Archive is no longer available at the Hull History Centre, UK; at present (December 2020), the files in the Archive are in the process of being transferred to the DigITall African History Archives, an initiative founded, developed, and hosted by Professor Femi Kolapo of the University of Guelph, Ontario.]
The chapter examines oriki (Yoruba praise poems/songs) and their usefulness to students of slavery in Ilorin and other parts of Yorubaland. It begins with a brief background account of the history of Ilorin, including slavery there. A review of the literature on oriki follows, including the insights of scholars such as Karin Barber, Chief J.A. Ayorinde, Bolanle Awe, S.O. Babayemi, and Adeleke Adeeko on the characteristics of the genre, and the strengths and weaknesses of oriki as sources of historical information. My review of the literature is deliberately detailed, so as to provide an accessible, comprehensive introduction to the genre.
Oriki are performed (or at least remembered) in many parts of Yorubaland, and they have appeared in some published collections. They are still performed in Ilorin, but the city rarely features in collections and studies, and I do not know of any systematic attempt to collect oriki there. I suggest that this neglect is connected with the city’s peculiar position vis-à-vis the rest of Yorubaland. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to gather oriki fragments, in and on Ilorin, as part of my broader study of slavery there. In my chapter, I provide short case studies surrounding these fragments, in order to illustrate some of the sources from which material may be acquired (here, local histories, interviews, and travellers’ accounts); some of the slavery-related topics that the material may cover; and some of the strengths and weaknesses of oriki as discussed by scholars and here related to slavery in Ilorin in particular.
It is possible that further research on oriki outside Ilorin may unearth material on individuals who were enslaved by Ilorin and other cities but later returned to their home areas and became prominent citizens. Oriki of these individuals (such as Esubiyi of Ayede) may provide information on their period of enslavement, and their descendants may be less sensitive than others about discussing it, given their forbears’ later eminence. But, of the slavery-related material that oriki may be able to provide, I think it likely that, due to the hegemonic character of the genre (as pointed out by Adeeko), it will prove to be most useful in increasing our knowledge of elite slaves. Oriki of elite slaves are found not only in Ilorin but also in Lagos, and thus very likely in other major Yoruba towns, and the investigation of these on a comparative basis may well be a fruitful approach.
Even the scattered fragments that I was able to collect have been of value. I encourage researchers to continue to look at local histories and other accounts. But I note that these are only starting points, and that oriki need to be collected in performance and in discussions with singers and their families. Given the decline in the performance of oriki, this is very urgently needed.