Immanuel Afolabi is a Nigerian film producer, teacher, freelance journalist, writer and musician. He has a passion for communicating developmental issues through text, sound, still and moving images. With funding from the French Research Institute (IFRA-Nigeria), Immanuel made a documentary – Osun Groove: Lost but Found?
The Oshogbo Sacred Groove is a UNESCO designated cultural heritage centre that sprawls a magnificent 74 hectares of land. Ironically, this historical site is the fruit of Susan Wenger's labor. Susan Wenger is the Austrian priestess, Iya Adunni (Mother Adunni), who first visited the groove in the 1950s and fell in love with the place. Wenger has come to personify “the spirit of the forest” an English translation of Oshogbo.
Nwachukwu Egbunike spoke to Immanuel Afolabi about his journey to the Osogbo Sacred Groove and the role of social media in reviving dying or invisible African religious practices.
Nwachukwu Egbunike (NE): You just did a documentary of the Oshogbo Groove. What is it is all about?
Immanuel Afolabi (IA): Let me start with the genesis of the documentary. I was in the French Research Institute sometime last year and the director mentioned to me that there was an International conference on patrimony identity, culture, etc. He said would want me to explore an aspect of those concepts through a documentary film and he specifically suggested the Osun Sacred Groove. Its revolves around patrimony because it has been in existence for hundreds of years and some of the things in that sacred groove have not been distorted by westernisation and modernisation, in spite of the heavy influence of late Susan Wenger, an Austrian. What I did was to explore how Nigerians specifically the people of Oshogbo respond either positively or negatively, and even the neutral aspects of their responses to what has been bequeathed to them by their great ancestors. Because of the sacred nature of that groove and the influence of Christianity and Islam, I found out that most people of Oshogbo shy away from fraternizing with their sacred groove. There are different dimensions and intricacies to the groove which I explored in the documentary.
NE: Nigeria seems to be a religious fault line between Christianity and Islam. How then does one then situate the place of the Oshogbo Groove within this equation?
IA: Studies claim that 50% of Nigerians are Muslims, 40% Christians, 10% of us are traditionalists, if you permit me to use that word. That’s the big challenge to the survival of the Osun groove. But one of my interviewees who is an adherent of the Osun religion told me that most Nigerians may profess not to fraternise with the groove publicly but privately are their frequent guests. The problem is hypocrisy, that’s what I can deduce from the responses of that particular interviewee of mine. However, when we get to our closets, we do one or two things that celebrate traditional religion. But the challenge is still there; either we look at it from that openness, or the covert way with which people fraternise with traditional religion. The challenge is that what is obviously known to us is that Christianity and Islam are the two dominating religions in this country and they do not subscribe to traditional religion and most Nigerians who ‘profess’ to be either Christians or Muslims do not fraternise with our traditional religions, due to the tenets of these two religions: Christianity and Islam.
NE: What was your perception of the Osun Groove?
IA: I went to the groove as an observer-participant not as a participant-observer. For instance, when that priestess asked me to do one or two things, so as to become a participant in the Osun worship, I objected to that because I do not believe in the Osun deity. But that did not truncate my assignment because I went there with the eye of an artist: let me see what other people cannot see, let me be the eyes of the society. But when it came that point of my identifying as a worshiper of the deity, I had to excuse myself from doing so. It my interest you also that I worked in the midst of Muslims when making this documentary. I was even in one of their religious services, but they never forced me or even asked me to participate in any of their religious rites. I went there to observe what they did and to give reportage of what they did and I don’t see a conflict actually, between what I do and my religious affiliation.
NE: Apart from the documentary that you have already done, what do you think about the potential of social media to be able to amplify these voices to other places about the cultural patrimony of Nigeria. Is there hope, or is it just mere hype?
IA: It is no hype and there is hope. But, I think the developmental angle will be to train, the traditionalists so that they themselves can report to us directly rather than through intermediaries – the digital natives. I was limited to going in to some places because I was initiated into some cult. So, if the traditionalists were trained in the art of employing the social media in reporting their patrimony that revolves round their cultural heritage etc; then, they would the liberty to give it to us one hundred percent and how they want it to be disseminated to us. How I can respond concretely to that is in this way. As a professional, if I can have the opportunity to train the locals, in employing the social media in reporting their traditional practices. I think that would serve them better and that would help in employing the social media in conveying to us what they want to convey to us from their own traditional and cultural perspective.
NE: Will the social media be employed in promoting this documentary?
IA: I don’t think so since the aim is purely academic. However we intend to create some short clips that will be uploaded on YouTube. The primary motive is to have it screened in an international conference (Patrimony, Memory and Identity in West Africa) organised early this month in the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. Another objective is to further screen it in global films festivals. In summary, it will serve as an educational and teaching tool.
NE: Is there a website for this documentary?
IA: No there is no website for the documentary but I have a blog and the sponsors of the project – IFR – also have a website.
NE: Do you think there is a common meeting ground for oral based African religious practices and technology?
IA: I am not in the best position to answer this question. However, some scholars advocate that Yoruba traditional religions have technology embedded in them. For instance, some believe that the Ifa corpus – a medium, through which Ifa priests communicate with the gods, gets feedback from the gods and relay same to their clients – is technology in action. Others also are of the view that the ability to predict the future – divination – is already a technological advancement.
NE: Can social media revive dying or invisible African religious practices to an everlasting life (by digitalizing the African spiritual experience)?
IA: Yes it can be used to preserve and make them available to the outside world. Technology helps in documenting these various cultural practices – the religion, the art, etc. The social media can serve as a platform through which oral tradition/religion can be projected to the global community easily and at a faster pace. Facebook, Twitter will be a platform in integrating these religious practices – serving as media of communication among many traditional groups, religions and promoting indigenous practices.
NE: How about Facebook or Twitter in local Nigerian languages?
IA: It can help. But some of these people might still be deprived from using social media because of lack of education. Since the language of instruction is still English. If people are instructed in their indigenous languages, this will not only push development but will also drive the adaptation of these social media platforms. However, we are disadvantaged in Africa because following the old trajectory of development, ‘technology’ used to be the paradigm. Although this attitude to development has changed, however, the remnants still remain. Until the language of instruction morphs from English to the local languages, then development will still remain stunted and the overall penetration and acceptance of social media platforms, might remain largely elitist.
NE: Generally, what do you see as the present or the future, as the case may be, of social media platforms in Nigeria, within and outside the art?
IA: The first thing is that, we need to build our technology in Nigeria. The more advanced we are and the more accessible many Nigerians are, including the locals, to technology, the better for Nigerians. We need to create access for Nigerians too, using this technology. The future is bright, and the world is going gaga, in the sense that technology is driving the world. And we can’t cut ourselves away from this trend.