A while back, my mother told a story. She told it the way such stories are usually told in my house, without fanfare, an ayaba from some other discussion the family was tabling. I can’t for the live of me remember what started the story but I remember the tale. A tale about a Yoruba royal family who despite the warning of their beloved father did not allow chiefs and priests access to their father’s body after his death. They went ahead, buried him secretly. In retaliation, the family faced many tribulations, spiritual ones. They went back to seek the elders, who told them in order to atone they have to give up their father’s body. They did. The king’s body was uprooted, chopped up into tiny pieces and buried in specific spots around the town. Rites were then done to appease the gods so the family and the city could be at rest. It’s a real life story. Also, quite recent.
On Wednesday, the news about the Ooni of Ife’s Abobaku running hit the web. Abobaku means someone who dies with the King. An Ababaku takes his oath the same time the Oba is coronated. In Yoruba tradition, and most African traditions, kings are never buried alone. Other people are solicited to help the King transition to the afterlife and to serve him there. An ancient tradition, yes. Now, you must realize Abobakus are not always called Abobakus. It’s just the name of the act itself. Although, it would seem in the Oyo kingdom they are called Abobaku.
Wole Soyinka in 1975 wrote a play titled Death and the King’s Horseman. Based on an incident that happened during colonial rule, Soyinka writes about an Abobaku: the King’s horseman, Elesin, who is stopped by the colonial ruler Simon Pilkings from carrying out his duty. The result is catastrophic: the villagers in agony blame both Elesin and Pilkings. Peace is only restored when Elesin’s son, Olunde returns from abroad to take his father’s duty as an Abobaku. He gives himself up. Elesin in return commits suicide, damning his soul to a place of nothing in the next world.
It’s important to note that it is not only in the Yorubaland that a King is buried with other people, animals and things. Other cultures have it too. Part of the ancient Egyptian retainer sacrifice involved killing the pharaohs’ servants who were to serve the pharaohs in their afterlife. Slaves of dead wealthy Vikings were beheaded and buried with them, as reported in this archaeological article in Science Direct. Plateau State’s Goemai bury the king’s favorite wife, horse, and servant in the same grave with him. Baganda, Shilik, Kpelle, Nyamwezi provide food and company for departed rulers by killing and burying along with the ruler’s wives, slaves, cattle, prisoners and some subjects. In Igboland, “Kings (ndieze) are for instance buried with slaves and the insignia of their office like the staff,” as pointed out by Dr. Okechukwu Maurice Izunwa. Hausas did do the same too, before they embraced Islam fully.
But, do we still practice such act today? That’s the question isn’t it? @Samade07 on Wednesday tweeted about the Abobaku story being a joke and not being true. According to him, there is no post in Ile Ife called Abobaku. The closest to that position is the Saarun. “The Saarun is the head of all messengers in Ife kingdom. He is the mouth piece of the Ooni.” Only the tree in the Oke Mogun shrine is cut in cementing the Ooni’s death.
However, one must take into consideration that the traditional rites that mark the transition of a king is being observed in Ile Ife today. The Oro/Ooro still went around town crying and the King’s transition was delayed till all necessary rites were done. The rites of monarchy have always been open secret, some more secret than others.
There’s no smoke without fire. The story started for a reason. So, if the news of the Abobaku running is true, personally, I’m not sympathetic to his action. He wasn’t forced to take the oath. He also enjoyed the privileges that came with such duty. One could claim, he breeched a contract. More, his family left behind, allegedly, would suffer the repercussions of his actions.
One thing is clear in this incident, we need to learn more about our history and customs.
By Murewa Olubela,
Graduate: Creative Writing/Public Relations at the University of South Florida.