Culture club

Egbe Omo Oduduwa members celebrate their ancient Yoruba Nigerian
culture with dancing, story telling, and a feast that could tame the gods
Tuesday, August 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:51 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

It’s an ancient Yoruba tale about an aging king, looking for a successor, who tests his subjects by demanding what they’ve grown from the seeds he gives them. He doesn’t tell them the seeds are infertile, and some of the subjects buy plants at the nursery to appease him. Only one, the future king, is honest enough to admit he has nothing.

Parents told that story by moonlight as a lesson to their children, in the south of what is now Nigeria. At Oduduwa Day on July 26, children performed it, wearing the traditional flowing, colorful attire of their parents’ homeland. Some of the parents were videotaping.

The children learned the story, and the songs they sang that night, at a biweekly class funded by local nonprofit Egbe Omo Oduduwa. They have been learning the Yoruba language, which they have been hearing in their homes since birth but are only now beginning to speak.

Although all but two of the students in the class were born in the United States, it’s important for them to know they came from somewhere, said Raqib Bashorun, one of the class’s teachers.

“We don’t want our culture to disappear into thin air,” he said. “We’ve done so much in terms of trying to educate the public. Now we need to do it to ourselves. Kids should be able to take over and finish what we start.”

Oduduwa Day was the fourth anniversary of Egbe Omo Oduduwa, an organization of 12 local Nigerians and their families. One of their missions is to share their culture with the community. The children’s performance, along with the five-yard spread of traditional African foods and a PowerPoint presentation about the importance of names in Yoruba custom, was as much an education for the non-Nigerian guests as it was a part of the party.

“We want the community to see who we are, how we dress,” said organization president Emmanuel Oyelola. He said sharing will challenge the illusions some people have about Africa.

Elizabeth Koyejo, 15, waiting for her part in the folklore performance, said the organization and cultural events such as Oduduwa Day bring her family closer together.

“It gives us a replica of our culture,” she said. She is one of 15 students in the Saturday class.

The organization meets monthly to speak the language and eat the food of their Yoruba tribe, a cultural reprieve from their English-language working world. Four members work on the MU campus.

Jumoke Sanusi said before she found Egbe Omo Oduduwa, she could only speak her native language on phone calls back home. She didn’t have anyone here to reminisce with.

“For me, it’s a family,” she said of the organization, of which she is now secretary. “It’s a home away from home.”

Oyelola said all the members have family in Nigeria and he’s praying for the day he can return. He came to Columbia in 1980 to earn an MU bachelor’s degree in agriculture and return home, but a series of coups and a depressed economy has kept him and his family here.

When one military coup usurped the election of a Yoruba presidential candidate in 1999, Yoruba Nigerians in the U.S. formed the national protest organization Egbe Isokan Yoruba to lobby Washington to intervene. Egbe Omo Oduduwa was founded as the local chapter.

Oyelola said the local group leaves the politics to the national level and focuses more on cultural outreach and community service. Egbe Omo Oduduwa members volunteer at Central Missouri Food Bank and recently adopted a spot for Columbia’s city beautification program. In 2000, members collected clothes and money for flood victims in Mozambique.

And they party together, with as many of the flavors of home as they can get in mid-Missouri.

“Anything that makes us happy, we celebrate,” Oyelola said.

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