Idowu Odeyemi, a retired professor of Applied Geology and founder, International Council for Ifa Religion, has talked about his life.
In this interview, he shares with TUNDE AJAJA his life’s journey, his religious beliefs, and passion for African and Yoruba spirituality
What fond memories of your growing up do you still have?
I was born and bred in Ilawe-Ekiti, Ekiti State and I thoroughly enjoyed my childhood. There were not many religions but we had traditional religion and I participated in all traditional festivals. There were several of them. In our community then, only one day was festival-free in a year and I enjoyed that traditional setting. My father was a cocoa farmer and I deeply participated in farming. I was very close to him and I usually accompanied him to the farm during holidays. Sometimes, we slept on the farm for four to five days and would come back on weekends.
Why did you sleep on the farm?
The farm was far from town, so instead of going and coming every day, we would sleep. We had a place like a house to sleep there and it was interesting, particularly when it was evening. After the day’s work, we would go and hunt for animals. However, sometimes we could wake up at night and find snakes beside us. We would suddenly feel its warmth, and once you raise the alarm it would go away.
Cocoa farmers were among the richest in society in those days, would you say your parents paid your fees with ease or you enjoyed a scholarship?
I didn’t enjoy scholarship until I entered the university, though some of my friends were sponsored by the Catholic Church. I was sponsored by my parents. In our village then, my family was perceived as one of the top 10 per cent because of cocoa farming and my mother was also a successful trader. So, when my father died, the responsibility fell on my mother to take up the funding of my education. She is 107 years old now while my dad died about 44 years ago. I was in university then.
You went for post-doctoral programmes in the United States, Netherlands (previously Holland), Italy other countries, what stood out for you in those trips?
I went to school early. I entered the university at age 18 and graduated at about 22 years. Immediately, the university invited me to start my PhD three months after I finished my Master’s programme. I finished my PhD at the age of 27, which was unusual in those days. I became a lecturer. In the process of lecturing, I got fellowships to Holland. Remote sensing, which is the science of data collection from a distance without physical contact, was just starting all over the world. It started as aerial photography and space photography. So, I went to The Netherlands for remote sensing. I was also invited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme to learn about aerospace science in Arizona, United States. It was a very challenging and interesting moment of my life, because one thing was coming after the other. From aerial photography, we moved to remote sensing and space science. In Arizona, we were trained alongside people being trained as astronauts. We studied the geology of the moon, geology of Mars and interpreting them, even though we are 200 million kilometres away from them. It was very interesting. Remote sensing is much better now. Recently, I was reading about the geology of Jupiter, which is 468 million kilometres away.
When you had the training with astronauts, did astronomy appeal to you as a field you would like to venture into?
Never; far from it. We were simply trained in the geology of the moon. To be trained as an astronaut was tough and to be an astronaut is a different kettle of fish. You have to train in aeronautics and I wasn’t trained in that. My own field was geology and ours was to look at the geology of the earth and space. About two weeks ago, I got the latest book on the geology of Mars and the search for evidence of life on Mars. To be an astronaut, you have to learn how to fly. You remember there were 13 missions to the moon and only about five were manned, while the others were not manned.
You also went to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy for training, what was it about?
It was also an interesting one on remote sensing and resource exploration; how to use remote sensing to explore for minerals, water, etc. While we were there, I was elected the first secretary of the Third World Association for Remote Sensing. We organised two conferences; one in Italy and the other in Ghana.
When you travelled to those countries for your postgraduate training, was there any temptation to stay back?
Never; there was nothing like that. Nigeria was still a good country. Naira was very strong and we didn’t have financial challenges. The University of Ibadan was sending my salary to me and they retained my position. So, there was no temptation to stay. I remember when I was coming back from the United States in 1982, naira was so strong that I had to change my dollars to naira.
Do you remember the rate at that time?
It was 50 kobo to one dollar, so there was no use for the dollar. I knew that if I returned to Nigeria with it, they would give me 50 kobo, less than N1. So there was no motivation.
When you compare that with the value of naira to dollar now, how does it make you feel?
The issue is that since 1960, Nigeria has been regressing because of poor leadership; thoughtless leadership with poor vision. So, if you plot the graph of growth versus time, the nation has been going down since 1960 and it’s a pity. When we were in the university, a meal was below N1. We have suffered in this country, with poor leadership and people who don’t have vision. The reason is because the leadership of this country was given to the wrong hands by the British government, and the Fulani were after nothing but power, not the use of power, but just to have the power. In the past 30 years, over 60 companies, like Dunlop, have collapsed. All the indices of development have failed here. Look at where we are. Dollar is about N600 and the government still retains the Minister of Finance. In a rational society, you would expect that they should try new hands but it’s not happening here and the economy is worsening day by day. Things are really bad. All the indices of production are gone, except farming which is also affected by insecurity. We won’t feel it now till the next season. If we can find food to eat, even if the dollar is N2,000, as long as food is available and affordable, the impact would be limited. Our yam, plantain, etc are not denominated in dollars. But once it affects food directly, you would see people pouring onto the streets.
People have always been attracted to working in oil companies and you studied a related course, what attracted you to teaching?
There was a slight attraction but not much. At that time, the university was also a very attractive choice. It was very prestigious to be a lecturer. It was even more prestigious when your department or university wrote to you to come and start your PhD, and that was my experience. I didn’t apply. They wrote to me that on account of my performance I had been invited to start my PhD programme. That was how I started. Three months after my BSc, the university wrote me to come and start my Master’s and then my PhD. It was very attractive. Out of the 54 in our class, only six made the best grades and the six of us were encouraged to come and start PhD. It was very prestigious to be invited to start a doctoral programme. I got a job with Gulf Oil but when I got a letter asking me to come and start my PhD, I jumped at the offer. In fact, we got jobs with Gulf, Agip and some installation companies before we finished our BSc. They would come with a helicopter to pick us for an interview in Lagos. After the interview, they would bring us back. But it was very prestigious to be invited by your university. I was invited alongside the late Dr Olusegun Agagu, former governor of Ondo State, Prof Malomo and others. We were about five. Things were good, but now the value placed on academics has dropped, just like everything else in this country.
You were a lecturer at the Federal University of Technology Akure when Agagu was the governor, did you consider joining him in politics or you were not very close?
We were close but not along that line. He never encouraged me to join politics. He came from a family of politicians, but we were never involved in politics in my family, so there was no urge to go into politics. Once, he invited me to a campaign, and when I saw the rigour of politicking, I told him there was no way I could join politics. When he was deputy governor, he would come to my house and name whatever he wanted to eat. It was very interesting, but I didn’t see myself in politics.
Your wife is also a professor, were you deliberate about marrying an academic?
These things just happen. We met in the village. She wanted to study medicine, but she didn’t get an admission on time and I said she should settle for any other course she liked rather than wait for medicine because time was going. So, she picked Zoology. At that time, I was almost graduating. By the time we got married, she was an undergraduate while I was already doing my PhD. After we got married, she was working in Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute in Ibadan while I was about to move to FUTA as the pioneer head of Geology Department in 1984. We were wondering where she would get a job in Akure. She already obtained Master’s degree and I said she should apply as an Assistant lecturer in FUTA. She got the job, while I came in as a head of department. She rose on the job until she also became a professor. She also found it interesting and I felt proud of her. It’s nice for a husband and wife to be professors.
You are an Ifa worshipper and you established the International Council for Ifa Religion, what attracted you to the religion?
I would say it came naturally since I became conscious of my environment. My father was an executive in Catholic Church in our town and I was a sacristy boy. I went to Catholic Primary and Secondary School, but all along I used to see inside the church white images (of Jesus Christ and Holy Mary) and we were obliged to kneel before these images. I was always asking why I was obliged to kneel before them. Of course, I was considered a rebel, particularly when my father was a senior executive in our church. People would always say look at the child of the church executive. I never missed any festival. Of course, I wasn’t alone; there were other children of my age that never missed the festivals. The Catechist and others preached against going to (traditional) festivals and coming to church but I didn’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, I always looked forward to the festivals until it was very obvious that it wasn’t possible for me to worship a white god. So, I rejected it. I finished my secondary education in 1967 and I gained admission thereafter. I entered the university in 1968 and I was totally free to do what I wanted.
What was the reservation you had about the religion?
First, it was out of my preference to be worshipping a God depicted as white when I am black. I said if God wanted me to worship Him I would have been white. I rejected that totally and I had been hearing about Ifa before then. So, between 1968 and 1969, particularly 1969, I heard about one Professor Wande Abimbola as an undergraduate in the Institute of African Studies. There were seminars and conferences, and I went there. I was carried away. Since then, I said once I finished my PhD, I would go and learn about Ifa. I finished my PhD in 1977 and in 1978 I started learning Ifa. It was very interesting and rewarding, so I have been in Ifa since 1978. I didn’t see any reason why anybody should tell me to choose Jesus over Orunmila. It just didn’t click. The problem we had was that there was no organisation that could bring everybody together under one umbrella, so I set out to do that. The old men didn’t have formal education and there was no way the educated ones would join us under such a disorganised system. So, I had to set up the International Council for Ifa Religion. Now, a lot of educated people are under the council and it is spreading like wildfire. People now realise they have lost so much just worshipping a white contraption. Both Christianity and Islam were set up by the West. When did Saudi Arabia start? About 600 years ago. Christianity started about 325 AD. We have been here thousands of years, and they are telling us that these two imported religions are better than what our forefathers have been practising for thousands of years. We are somehow pioneers.
Your dad was an executive in the Catholic Church but you were attending traditional festivals, did he feel embarrassed?
I wasn’t the only one going for festivals. It was almost everybody. During the festivals, even the son of the Catechist used to follow us. There are a lot of attractions in Yoruba spirituality, and you know when you ask children not to go somewhere, that is where they would like to go.
By the time you got married, Christianity and Islam would have been the dominant religions, how did you get your wife to convert too?
I started as a Christian and same thing for my wife. But being academics, we rationalised it. Are these two religions about God Almighty? No, they are fictions of men. God has no religion. There is nothing like Christianity if it was not established for political reasons. We rationalised it and she joined me. Today, she is an initiate of Ifa religion and my four children are initiates of Ifa religion even though we did not force any of them to join us. It’s just the power of logic. Can it be true? If God wanted you to be white, you will be and if he wanted you to be black, you will be. How come you will tell me to worship somebody who is white? It is simple logic, but our people have been so badly brainwashed and of course with the use of education and subtle pressure. Yoruba spirituality is not a religion but spirituality.
How do you feel when some people designate people who worship Ifa as ritualists?
It’s Western propaganda. They want to convert you by all means. They tried to convert my children. Anybody can describe you as anything. There is no going back. I’m 72. It’s easier to be yourself at this age. We are black, Orunmila and Sango are black. It’s easier to be who you were created to be than pretend to be what you are not. If they say your religion is bad, why are they taking all our artworks and marketing them for millions of dollars? If you look at Ife mask or Benin bronze, they make millions of pounds and dollars every day and they come and tell you it is bad. I’m happy today that some of the children of these colonisers are not Christians. If you go to Europe, some churches have been converted to museums. The religion is spreading fast in many countries, like Brazil, Japan and many others, but we are here demonising it.
When you were in service, what were your most memorable moments?
Training people to be better than me and leaving the profession better than I met it. There is nothing better than knowledge. I have thousands of students that I impacted and are now in the profession. Some of them are not even into Geology anymore but we have been able to transfer knowledge. I have only one house but I have children across the world whose lives have been transformed by virtue of the knowledge I was able to transfer to them. That is memorable.
What amazes you most about the earth and its components?
The planetary motion is very interesting. These planets are moving in perpetuity, they are not colliding with one another and the motion is regular, in addition to the fact that the earth is just one out of seven planets that make up the solar system. The solar system is just one out of 200 billion solar systems in the milky way galaxy and the milky way galaxy is one out of 200 billion galaxies in the visible part of the universe and all these are moving in a regular motion. Yes, in the past, several galaxies collided. This sun will die, our galaxy will die and several other galaxies will die. These things amaze me. The questions arise, did somebody create the universe? That is a big question.
What do you think?
Man is a chauvinist, so did man emanate from one place? Is creation a product of intelligent design or just by accident? It’s a topic that we will continue to debate until the end of time. Sometimes, when you look at the solar system, you ask yourself, is it by intelligent design? Did somebody wake up and say I will create this and that? Well, that is creationism or evolution. Such issues can be rationalised either way. For example, why does the monkey look like man? Did life emanate from one point and evolve into millions and millions of creatures? These are issues we will continue to debate until the end of time.