Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2019
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
“The Science of Our Fathers”: Ifá Divination, Textuality, and Epistemic Change in Southwestern Nigeria, 1870-1950

Much of the contemporary scholarship on ifá, a system of divination found in southwestern Nigeria, Benin, Cuba, and the United States, focuses on its elaborate body of poetic verses. Yet while ifá also attracted the interest of numerous 19th-century African missionaries, these earlier observers rarely mentioned this literary corpus. Conceiving of ifá divination as a system of knowledge production, this project will use ifá as a case study that reveals how colonialism transformed African ways of knowing. Historians of Africa have noted that Africans contributed knowledge of society, history, and the natural world to scientific researchers practicing on the continent. We lack, however, an understanding of how colonialism transformed African epistemologies, without which we cannot understand what such knowledge really meant for Africans. Focusing on southwestern Nigeria, this project will argue that a series of developments brought about by mission-educated intellectuals in Lagos at the end of the nineteenth century limited the scope of ifá from a wide range of divinatory practices to one focused on interpreting an oral "scripture." These intellectuals, including D.O. Epega and E.M. Lijadu, wrote accounts that equated ifá divination with textual interpretation. This redefinition of ifá benefited the prestigious practitioners who had long promoted an ideology of oral textual superiority, the babaláwo. Intellectuals like Epega and Lijadu sat at the feet of babaláwo for years in order to collect data for their "authoritative" accounts of ifá, and, in the 1930s and 1940s, associations of babaláwo circulated these early print versions of the corpus and published their own. By the time influential mid-century anthropologists like William Bascom began to conduct ethnographic research in southwestern Nigeria, printed text had already indelibly shaped ifá by limiting its ways of producing knowledge.