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Esu is Not the Devil: How a Yoruba Deity Got Rebranded

African traditional religions are widely misundertood—none more so than the Yoruba pantheon.

A striking sight greets drivers at Ojuelegba, one of the busy sites connecting Lagos Mainland to the Lagos Island. It is a small white cell with the words "Ojubo Esu" inscribed on its wall. Its presence in the middle of one of the world's most evangelical Christian countries, is a sign that traditional African religion is alive and well on the continent.


Despite its ubiquity, it's also not an understatement to say that most indigenous African religions are widely misunderstood—even on the continent itself, and amongst most "modern" Africans; many of whom shun these beliefs as evil superstitions.

From the sophisticated beliefs of the Dogon, to the sangomas of South Africa, most people have just a vague idea of these religious systems, writing them off as relics of a pre-civilised past. Nigeria, Africa's largest country is no exception to this phenomenon, and nowhere is this more notable than in the recent history of one the country's most captivating deities, Esu.

One of the principal deities of the Aborisa faith that emerged from the Yoruba society in Nigeria, and spread through the slave trade to Cuba, South America and the United States—his name has also been used since the 19th century interchangeably with the devil amongst Yoruba Christians. It's a contentious subject, and one that has increasingly sparked public debate.

The Aborisa religious system, now globally influential, is now a deeply misunderstood and widely disrespected belief system in its country of origin. In brief, this religious system is based on the idea of a supreme deity, and a number of primordial beings, called Orisa that represent elements of nature, as well as human and divine personality and ideas. The belief is underpinned by a divination system through which adherents get advice and guidance from the orisas and their ancestors.

Over the years, the orisas, the gods of this belief system have increasingly entered into the global popular imagination, most recently, Beyoncé evoked the Yoruba goddess Osun in her song "Hold Up"—some of the other gods include Sango, who is increasingly popular, and the subject of a forthcoming animated film made in Nigeria. Another goddess, Oya, is partly the inspiration for storm in the popular X-men series. Less represented is the Orisa known as Esu—which is weird given his prominence within the aborisa faith.

Beyonce in Lemonade.

Simply put, in aborisa faith, Esu is the intercessor god, that devotees of all the other orisas have to pay homage to. But nowadays in the religion's native Nigeria, Esu is misunderstood as the devil. "Na devil do am" is a popular saying in Nigeria when someone does something wrong that they can't explain, or wish to disown. In essence, many believe that Esu is the devil that pushes people to do evil. But, according to devotees and most scholars, in the original Yoruba cosmology this wasn't quite the case – Esu was and is a much more complex figure and concept.

Christians argue he is the devil but the Yorubas just didn't know it, until the bible landed in their hands. How did we get here? In 1821, a young boy was kidnapped from a Yoruba town, Osogun in present day Oyo State, Nigeria, along with his mother, sister and baby brother. His name was Ajayi, and his story could very easily have been like the millions of other Africans kidnapped from their homes and sold into slavery in the 19th Century, but a twist of fate changed his fortunes. The slave ship taking Ajayi and other slave to the new world was boarded by British troops. Ajayi, later baptized Samuel Ajayi Crowther was rescued, and became one of the leading missionaries promoting Christianity in West Africa, and crucially, one of the leading figures translating the bible into local languages, including Yoruba.

When it came to finding equivalent names for Satan and Jesus in Yoruba; for Jesus, the name was Yorubanized to Jesu Kristi, but for the devil, the translators of the Yoruba bible chose an existing god in Yoruba belief, Esu. That fateful decision has haunted the understanding of Yoruba beliefs to this day. In an article for Sahara Reporters that sparked furious rebuttal, the journalist, Remi Oyeyemi, argues that Crowther did it on purpose, deliberately slandering and misrepresenting one of the crucial figures of Yoruba belief in an act of revenge against his people for their role in the slave trade.

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1867 Via Wikimedia

As he explains, "Esu, in Yoruba cosmology is not the Devil or Satan as has been and is being portrayed by Euro-Christian religious school of thought. Esu, in the authentic Yoruba concept, is the enforcer of the Will of Olodumare and not the equivalent of the Euro-Christian Devil/Satan who is out to undermine the work of the Almighty God." In a riposte, also written for Sahara Reporters, Ayo Turton argues that Esu is the devil, and what Crowther and other missionaries did was to supply the missing link. Crucially Turton suggests that like Satan, Esu was cast out of heaven—but that's not part of Yoruba cosmology.

Whatever interpretation one accepts of Crowther's intentions, the case remains that the introduction of this Yoruba god into Christian theology, led to a misunderstanding of his function in Yoruba belief, leading many people to believe that aborisas venerating Esu are essentially devil worshippers. In concrete terms, it has set up a conflict for many Nigerians between ancestral beliefs and Christianity—rather than viewing both as distinct religious traditions, many see traditional beliefs as the devil's work being done on earth.

Yet, in recent times, it seems people are starting to reject this distorted interpretation and interact with Esu and Yoruba cosmology on its own terms. A group of cultural activists have a launched a campaign, complete with a hashtag, #EsuIsNotSatan; aborisa practitioners are also increasingly vocal and digitally savvy about discussing their faith publicly to challenge distortions. Whether these developments will lead to a better understanding of Esu and aborisa beliefs in Nigeria, only time will tell.

Dele Meiji is a writer. Follow him on @delemeiji. He also runs the blog: www.jebujene.org

This YouTube Account Is Sharing South African Audiobooks For Free, And We Are Here For It

Listen to audiobooks by Steve Biko, Bessie Head, Credo Mutwa, and more.

Audio Books Masters is a YouTube channel that uploads audio versions of South African books and short stories.

Recent additions include Life by Bessie Head, Crepuscule by Can Themba, Indaba, My Children by Credo Mutwa, among others. South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who passed away three weeks ago, also gets read. You can listen to his poem No Serenity Here. More books you can stream include I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, Africa is my Witness by Credo Mutwa, among others.

Audio Book Masters was started by two friends, Bonolo Malevu (24) and Hahangwivhawe Liphadzi (23).

Malevu is a University of Pretoria BA Drama graduate, who is currently doing his LLB. Liphadzi is an LLB graduate, who is completing his LLM this year.

"I found a hobby of narrating books to craft my art skill after reading Credo Mutwa's Indaba, My Children," says Malevu in an email to OkayAfrica. "After reading the prologue, I knew that this book was meant to be converted [to] many different formats such as stage plays, series, movies and audiobooks."

Then came the idea of creating a YouTube channel. That was when Malevu teamed up with Liphadzi.

They both bought themselves high quality recorders, and started reading, recording and uploading.

Authors from the olden days such as RRR Dhlomo and HIE Dhlomo, whose audio versions of their books are available on the channel, are older than 50 years and their copyrights have since expired.

The rest, though, Liphadzi and Malevu say they are trying to get in contact with the publishers, but it's not easy.

"We have contacted the Department of Trade Industry (DTI) regarding this issue," they say. "We have been in contact with various copyright holders and we are still in the negotiation process. However we are finding it difficult to contact certain publishers, and the consistent uploading of their books is to attract their attention."

The two friends say they started the channel to bring books closer to people who otherwise wouldn't have access, and to get people to appreciate literature, especially African authors. "We want to bring such literature to the digital age in the form of storytelling which has been a unique African form of literature," they say. "The channel also helps develop our voices as we are a voice company that offers all kinds of voice services. We also identified how South African authors lack audio books, and found that there is a gap in this market, and this could really create many job opportunities in South Africa."

The two are currently developing stories in indigenous languages for children in English medium schools. "This is drawn from the fact that in such schools, a lot of African students struggle to speak their own native languages. So we approach various schools to sell them such literature. We are freelance voice over artists who also do radio, content production, news reading and radio adverts."

We are so here for this.

Subscribe to Audio Books Masters' YouTube channel and follow them on Twitter.

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Nigerian Actor Sope Aluko On How She Landed a Coveted Role in ​'Black Panther​'

Marvel's Black Panther is already on the brink of being a blockbuster, as it already broke box office records within the first 24 hours of it's pre-sale. Beating Captain America: Civil War's record in 2016, Fandango reports results from a user survey, stating Black Panther was 2018's second most-anticipated movie after Avengers: Infinity War.

One up-and-coming actor who will star alongside Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan (to name a few) is Sope Aluko. Come February 16, we'll see the Nigerian-born actor play 'Shaman' in the film. Her previous credits include recurring roles on Netflix's “Bloodline," NBC shows “Law & Order SVU" and “Parks & Recreation" and guest appearances on USA Network's “Burn Notice" and Lifetime's “Army Wives."

Her film credits include supporting roles in feature films including Identity Thief, 96 Minutes, Grass Stains, The Good Lie and more. Raised in the UK, Aluko studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA) and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). Aluko speaks four languages, including her native language, Yoruba, French, and Bahasa, an Indonesian language.

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Music

Femi Kuti Spreads Some Much-Needed Peace In the Video For 'One People One World'

Watch the music video for the first single off Femi Kuti's upcoming EP "One People One World."

Femi Kuti drops the music video for his single "One People One World," the title song from his forthcoming 10th studio album.

The energy boosting music video sees Femi Kuti delivering an electrifying performance in the Kuti family-owned New Afrika Shrine in Lagos.

On the track, the accomplished musician promotes an unwavering message of peace and unity—things that the world could perhaps always use more of, but especially so in today's Trump-dominated political climate. His message of positivity is illustrated with graphics that appear throughout the video, showing various country flags and symbols of love and peace.

"Racism has no place, give hatred no space," Kuti sings atop brassy instrumentals. "Let's settle the differences, it's best to live in peace. Exchange cultural experiences; that's the way it should be," he continues.

"One People One World," (the album) is a plea towards global harmony and solidarity. When you look at what's going on in Africa, Europe and America, it's important to keep the dream of unity alive," the artist told OkayAfrica in November.

"When I was a boy, I listened to funk, highlife, jazz, folk songs, classical music and my father's compositions, so you will hear those things in the music."

"One People, One World" by Femi Kuti and his band, the Positive Force, drops on February 23 via Knitting Factory, and is now available for preorder.

Femi Kuti, 'One People One World' cover.

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