Chapter 3: Origin of the Oku
As recent as the mid-18th century, most sub-Saharan African state structures could not be clearly defined, due to the devastating effect of wars. The destruction of original settlements resulted in migration and the development of new settlement areas. Another factor that aggravated the structural crisis was the movement of different ethnic groups from one region to another in search of better secured and spacious land for farming. The incessant migration of the African people resulted in what can be described as blocks of stateless agricultural societies which sometimes dominated the social organisation.
The present-day mapping system, though queried by some people as separating major ethnic groups, has made it easy for most people to belong to clearly defined states within African society. While it has been very convenient for some groups to easily claim their origin, a minute group such as the Oku is finding the task a bit difficult. However, with clues on the historical background, occupation and religion of the Oku, an attempt is made in this book to trace their exact ancestral home or simply mark out the region of migration of the Oku community.
The former capital of Nigeria, Lagos, and its environs has long been inhabited by the Yoruba ethnic group. Their population stretches across the Western Region consisting of today’s Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ondo and Ekiti states. The Yoruba language is spoken by the generality of the people in this vast region. The lack of language barriers makes for free movement of the people from one end of the region to the other. The people also share a general belief in various ancestral gods/goddesses, such as Ogun, Shango and Oya, while Oduduwa is regarded as the original founder of Yorubaland.
Another Yoruba-speaking area is former Kwara State (now split into Kwara and Kogi states), which is seen more as a Middle Belt state than a Western State. Kwara region is a landlocked area found between northern and south western Nigeria. The majority of the inhabitants are Yoruba. However, due to the influence of the occupation of Kwara State by Dan Fodio jihadists from the north, the Hausa language is widely spoken in the area. In fact, the Hausa dominated Kwara to the extent that instead of the usual chiefs and obas found in the rest of Yorubaland, emirs and sarkis are installed as traditional rulers, as is the case in northern Nigerian states.
The people of Kwara bear Muslim names in addition to their Yoruba names – names like Ahmed Tijan, Nuru Deen and Taju Deen, depicting Islamic religious sects such as the Tijania and Ansaru Deen movements. The men, who are the pioneers in the spread of Islam in the Yoruba region, are distinguished from the rest of the folk by their turban head-gear. The women are also actively involved in cultural and religious activities. Like their male counterparts, the women bear Islamic names like Fatmatta, Khadija, Ramatu and Zainab. In the same light, we discover that nearly all Okus are Muslims. Like the people of Kwara, the Oku bear Yoruba names in addition to their Muslim names and Deen is the most prominent surname. Due to the influence of Islam on their culture, surnames like Shongo, Osun, Ogun, Oya (names of Yoruba gods/goddesses) were replaced by Muslim names such as Usman, Ayuba, Abdullah and Ahmed Tijan.
The Yorubas of Lagos coast consist of the local people and returnees from the slave trade. While the latter group settled mainly at Isale-Eko and Badagry, others formed scattered settlements all over the city. Yorubas from the interior also had their settlement in Lagos. Prominent amongst the inlanders who settled in Lagos were the Ijebu, Ijesha, Ogbomosho, Atakpa, Ara-Epe, Ara-Owu, Ara-Oro and Ara-Otta. Yorubas who are natives of Lagos are referred to as Ara-Eko. On the other hand, the inlanders who settled in Lagos are Ara-Oke. Eko is the Yoruba name for Lagos and Ara means native. Ara-Eko therefore means native of Lagos or city dwellers. Oke means inland, hence the term Ara-Oke is used to refer to the inlanders.
The Yorubas have always been involved in local trade within the nooks and crannies of Nigeria. When the opportunity of travelling along the coast came in the early 19th century (during the West African trade), they were the first to take advantage of it. The Yoruba, city dwellers and inlanders alike, traded with Europeans across almost all port cities of West Africa for over a century. Most of the city dwellers also availed themselves of Western education, which moulded some of them into clerical officers, teachers, cashiers and professional businessmen. Others became seafarers on board European vessels, house helps, drivers, quay labourers, cooks and middlemen between local traders and European merchants.
During late 19th century and early 20th century, the Yorubas formed settlements in some of the main West African port cities like Lagos, Accra, Freetown and Bathurst (now renamed Banjul). Some took up permanent residence in Europe.
During the West African trade, imported into Freetown and Bathurst from Nigeria were goods such as kola nuts, bitter kola, shea butter, palm fruit and rubber. The regions from where these goods originated may be linked with the Oku, who were traders of these goods. Furthermore, certain cultural values and practices, which gradually became part of the cultural tradition of the Freetown and Bathurst settlements, were brought in by Yoruba traders from Nigeria. For instance, the secret societies of Egungun consisting of Gelede, Igunoku, Okosha and Oro (spiritual) masquerades were first introduced in these cities by the Oku. These masquerades are still found in places like Osun and Kwara states and Abeokuta. This is another clear testimony of the fact that the Oku, who still hold on to the culture of these secret societies, have an ancestral link with the regions from where these masquerades emanated; that is, south western Nigeria.
The Yoruba people are viewed by many as possessing one of the richest cultural traditions in Africa and all sections of the nation took pride in this, even those expatriated to Sierra Leone by the hazards of the slave trade were noted for their cultural solidarity in their new environment. Christian descendants of these Yoruba people have also preserved the practice of Egungun. They may often be seen performing the Egungun antic in the streets of Freetown. There, however, the spiritual aspect of the Egungun is less elaborated than in Yoruba land. The influence of Christianity and Islam in West Africa during the post-colonial era was responsible for the dampening of the people’s enthusiasm over some of their cultural beliefs.
Christian Yorubas who engaged in the Egungun cultural practice were baptised and they took on English names and surnames. Some of these Yoruba Christians who settled within the Oku community in Freetown and The Gambia accepted the Islamic faith which was being widely spread by the many Islamic scholars in their midst. Due to this development, we still find the Oku (Yoruba descendants) in Freetown and The Gambia bearing Christian surnames like Cole, Davies, Denton and Gillen. There are also Yoruba Muslims and Christians in Lagos who still bear these same English surnames.
After the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Lagos and its surroundings were troubled by inter-ethnic wars amongst the Yorubas. This turmoil made way for those close to the British explorers to use their positions to launch prohibited slave raids across the troubled localities. Some of these smuggled slaves from Lagos were intercepted by British cruisers and brought to Freetown where they gained their freedom. This group of settlers were referred to as liberated Africans. The Yoruba wars and the undercover slave trade also intensified the mass expedition to relatively peaceful West African coastal cities like Bathurst and Freetown.
The Oku in The Gambia, as earlier stated, speak Krio (a broken form of English) mixed with Yoruba phrases. Some Yoruba words used by the Oku have become household words in The Gambia; words like ajo (friendly gesture), osusu (saving scheme), buba (blouse), ebeh (porridge) and foo-foo (cassava paste). There are other words that are used exclusively by the Oku. They include eku-ishe (well done), eku-odun (greeting for festivity), e-shasuru (be patient), iyawo (bride) and okor (bridegroom). There are also some Yoruba expressions and phrases used only by members of Oku secret societies.
The word Oku in the Yoruba language means that which is dead. Attempts made to find out the source of the name Oku and why it has remained with this group of people unveiled a lot of intriguing facts.
There is no group of people who would want to be referred to as dead. In as much as the Yoruba believed in intercession with their ancestors, it would seem quite unrealistic for them to have dropped Yoruba as their original name, and replace it with the name Oku. Many of the Oku elders who were approached on this subject quite frankly resent the fact that such a name has remained with them. Some of them argue that the word is not Oku but Eko which stems from the word Ara-Eko. Others feel that the use of similar words like Ara-Eko, Ara-Oke and Aku posed a problem of distinction. As time went on, these words were muddled up. In the end, two words – Oku and Aku remained on the Gambian scene while in Sierra Leone the Aku are referred to as Creoles and the Oku as Oku Marabout.
Yet another assertion is that these prominent Yorubas, who themselves were fond of nicknaming, may have been nicknamed Oku by other groups whom they interacted with in Freetown.
In light of the identical background of the two groups, i.e. the Oku and Yoruba people of south-western Nigeria, it can be clearly stated at this point that the Oku of The Gambia and Sierra Leone are descendants of the Yoruba-speaking people of south-western Nigeria. They consist of the people of Ogun, Lagos, Oyo, Kwara and Osun states, amongst others. Their present settlements in The Gambia and Sierra Leone also include returnees from the slave trade who were converted to Islam.
Ramatoulie Othman is an avid executive member of the Writers Association of the Gambia, where she holds the position of Treasurer. Ramatoulie’s writing is influenced by her concern of negatively impacting the lives of vulnerable groups in society, especially women and youths. Through her writing, she advocates mainly for the promotion and protection of the rights of these groups. Her first book published in the Gambia is a historical account of the Oku Marabouts, titled ‘A Cherished Heritage’ followed by the novel ‘Costly Prices’ which highlights the ugly trend of sex tourism in the Gambia and its inimical effect on the youth and the Gambian society as a whole. She has contributed to various Newspapers in The Gambia, and her most recent book is A Risky Path to Success, which addresses the topic of irregular migration as it affects the youth. (source: SheWomen)