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Journal of African Cultural Studies

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Arugba: superwoman, power and agency

Rotimi Fasan

To cite this article: Rotimi Fasan (2016) Arugba: superwoman, power and agency, Journal of
African Cultural Studies, 28:3, 283-291, DOI: 10.1080/13696815.2016.1163254

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Published online: 14 Apr 2016.

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Journal of African Cultural Studies, 2016
Vol. 28, No. 3, 283–291,

Arugba: superwoman, power and agency

Rotimi Fasan*

Department of Languages and Linguistics, Osun State University, Osogbo, Nigeria

Based on field studies conducted during two attendances at the Osun Osogbo festival, on 24
August 2012 and 21 August 2015, and a close reading of Arugba (2008), a Yorùbá video-
film celebrating Osun and her votive supplicant Arugba, I demonstrate how Nigerian
filmmaker Tunde Kelani represents Arugba as a direct medium of the spirits, communicant
of the spiritual world and, therefore, possessor of Osun’s magical powers. Arugba, in this
video-film, is not only conceived as a warrior-defender of the weak and vulnerable, an
accomplished artist, a passionate and faithful lover, but she also represents a vision of a
Nigeria, even Africa, in transition from a corrupt, male-dominated past to futures of
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transparency in public and private endeavours. She is thus a weaponized symbol of female
power, independence and leadership in a society in dire need of physical and spiritual
revival, cleansing and renewal.
Keywords: Arugba; Osun Osogbo festival; Tunde Kelani; female superhero

The Yorùbá is not, like European man [or woman], concerned with the purely conceptual aspects of
time; they are too concretely realised in his[or her] own life, religion, sensitivity, to be mere tags for
explaining the metaphysical order of his world. If we may put the same thing in fleshed-out cogni-
tions, life, present life, contains within it manifestations of the ancestral, the living and the unborn.
All are vitally within the intimations and affectiveness of life beyond mere abstract conceptualisation.
Wole Soyinka, from ‘The Fourth Stage’
It is Friday, 21 August 2015. The atmosphere from Olaiya Junction to the intersection that leads to
the Osun Grove is festive. The laterite-red dirt road that goes to the Grove has recently been
graded in readiness for the Osun Osogbo festivities. Gaily dressed people, many in ceremonial
or ritual gear of diverse colours, cluster around in groups. Others cradling bottles of alcoholic
or energy drinks roam up and down the long stretch from Olaiya Junction and the surrounding
areas. Many of them look dazed and intoxicated. Yet others engage in loud banter from across
the two sides of the road that is jammed with vehicles that make all vehicular movement imposs-
ible just before one gets to the Osun Grove intersection. There is a cacophony of sonic blasts of
recorded and live music from the different stands put up by merry-makers. Displayed in the hasty
roadside farm markets are an assortment of wares and foodstuffs, including newly harvested
yams, fresh vegetables and peppers; handcrafted goods like necklaces, bangles, chains, anklets
and shawls. Also on sale are specially prepared amulets, magic rings, perfumes and powdery sub-
stances held in bottles and other containers, openly hawked and sold by out-of-town traders. They
are either standing or seated on low stools and chairs under small tents or umbrellas erected to
keep out the sun. At about 9 o’ clock in the morning, the area around the intersection assumes
a charged ardour.


© 2016 Journal of African Cultural Studies

284 R. Fasan

A palpable air of occasion pervades as a tightly packed crowd of priests and priestesses, wor-
shippers, revelers, drummers and other interested persons (Figure 2) emerge from the nearby
palace of the Ataoja, the paramount ruler of Osogbo (Figure 3). The crowd surges down the
five hundred-metre road that runs straight from the palace to connect with the dirt road that
leads on to the Grove. At the head of the crowd are bands of youthful men holding long canes
with which they beat one another, or scare off individuals and groups of bystanders who have
been waiting all along for this moment – the moment when they can finally behold the
Arugba, the star-actor in this ritual drama of being and communal affirmation. The different
groups of bystanders who have now congealed into throngs of anxious onlookers push and
shove one another. They are chased back by the vanguard of cane-wielding youths (Figure 1)
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Figure 1. At Isale Osun junction, a vanguard of cane-wielding youths and other participants surround Arugba
on all sides.
Journal of African Cultural Studies 285
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Figure 2. A crowd of worshippers and participants in front of a shrine-like structure where they wait for
Arugba inside the Osun Grove.

who leads the procession from the king’s palace. Some of the onlookers fall back or into the newly
cleared gutters, a few of which are lined with human and animal waste. Many stand on tiptoes,
while others look on from the balconies of nearby houses, to watch the moving throng. In the
midst of this crush of human bodies, attended and chaperoned by both male and female guides
or guards, Arugba walks in brisk strides to the Osun Grove. The ritual offering she carries on
her head is covered with a red, velvety/silky cloth. This is the Arugba’s procession, the highlight
of the annual Osun Osogbo festival instituted to commemorate Osun.1
Based on field studies conducted during two attendances at the Osun Osogbo festival, on 24
August 2012 and 21 August 2015, and a close reading of Arugba (2008), a Yorùbá video-film
286 R. Fasan
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Figure 3. The Ataoja of Osogbo, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun, in wine-coloured abetiaja hat, arrives at the Osun
Grove in the company of some of his wives and other attendants.

celebrating Osun and her votive supplicant Arugba, I shall demonstrate how Nigerian filmmaker
Tunde Kelani, in this follow-up to his documentary film, Oroki (a short 2009 documentary film
about the Osun Osogbo festival), represents Arugba as a direct medium of the spirits, communi-
cant of the spiritual world and, therefore, possessor of Osun’s magical powers. Kelani is well
known for his socially and politically inspired video-films, such as Saworo Ide, Agogo Eewo,
Koseegbe and Ti Oluwa Nile, among others. The particular production under focus here is the
outcome of research begun by him in the mid-1990s, on the Osun Osogbo festival. Osogbo,
one of the major cultural centres of the Yorùbá, is an ancient city in the southwestern part of
Journal of African Cultural Studies 287

Arugba offers social commentary on Nigerian politics in the immediate aftermath of military
rule in 1999. It is specifically a filmic representation and contemporary reinterpretation of the
Osun Osogbo festival that serves as a framing device to critique the civilian administration of Olu-
segun Obasanjo, the former military ruler who became Nigeria’s elected president in that year
after 16 years of unbroken military rule. There are clear enough indicators in this film to
justify this reading. These include allusions to some of the more vociferous attacks on his admin-
istration such as the so-called selective anti-corruption war led by the Economic and Financial
Crimes Commission, his famed impatience with opposing ideas, the hounding, arrest and some-
times murder of opposition elements including his own Attorney General and Minister of Justice,
his famed weakness for women and several other personal foibles and excesses that were the
favourite subject of the tabloid press. Obasanjo who retired from the military in 1979 had success-
fully handed over the reins of governance to a civilian government that was overthrown in
December 1983. But even as a civilian leader, the retired general retained in his political practice
the inherited reflexes and sensibilities of his years in the military.
As a thinly veiled allegorical, and fictionalized, account of life in contemporary Nigeria,
Arugba is a celebration of the communitarian virtues of chastity, honesty and sacrifice for and
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on behalf of the community. In the film, Arugba is reanimated as an accomplished singer,

dancer and communicant of the spiritual world. When under the trance-like and transformative
influence of Osun, she becomes, like the Marvel superhero, the Incredible Hulk, superhumanly
strong and is filled with such physical strength that makes it possible for her to restrain and over-
power even male adversaries. She puts this power to the service of the weak and is able to save a
group of children from a syndicate of kidnappers involved in the trafficking of children. Arugba is
able to prevent the terrible trade in human merchandise after she has been revived by the healing
and restorative power of water, the primary property of her patron goddess, Osun. She is thereafter
filled with super (wo)man power, breaks the chains with which she was held and overpowers her
adversaries in a scene which in many respects foreshadows the dark trade in child kidnapping and
human trafficking that has come to define and blighted contemporary life in many parts of
Nigeria. In 2008, when Arugba was produced the illicit but highly lucrative trade was just becom-
ing entrenched in the southeast, and the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria, where it was first
employed by armed militias as a political weapon meant to call attention to the environmental
and ecological challenges being faced by the people in that part of the country. But Arugba’s
firm and timely rescue of these children in the film contrasts sharply with the helpless indifference
and ineffectual response of the Nigerian state to the midnight kidnapping of over 250 girls from a
secondary school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria.2 The global outrage sparked by this unprece-
dented episode would give birth to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that is now in its
second year.
The white cloth that is wrapped round Arugba’s bosom and lower body in the film symbolizes
the purity of both herself and of the Osun deity whose foremost acolyte she is. Her purity, for
Adeoti (2012), contrasts with the corruption, violence and contempt for extant laws and regu-
lations that characterize national politics in Nigeria. As a metaphor of national renewal and
rebirth, the Arugba character, Adetutu, acted by Bukola Adeyemo, is presented as pure and
untainted by the blemishes of contemporary social and political life, especially those sexual
immoralities common among the younger generation. In a sense, the positive portrayal of the
younger elements in Ilu-Nla, the fictional town in which the film is set, is an affirmation of
faith in the ability of the youth, especially women, to effect societal change and rebirth, away
from the rot and corruption of the older generation of mostly male leaders.
There are enough indicators of the fact that Ilu-Nla is a satirist’s depiction of contemporary
Nigeria. “While the spatial setting is anonymous and fictive, the temporal setting is specific
and realistic, thus underscoring the film’s verisimilitude through closeness to history and
288 R. Fasan

imagination” (Adeoti 2012, 119). As Adeoti goes on to observe, Ilu-Nla is a metaphor of Nigeria
which prides itself as the giant of Africa in terms of sheer geographic and demographic compo-
sition. But in spite of her huge human and material wealth, Nigeria, the film seems to say, presents
a sorry state of a country that fails to meet its potential if not, in fact, a failed experiment in nation
building, marked as it is by a vast population of unemployed youth, decayed infrastructure, cor-
ruption and social and political upheavals.
Mythic history has long been at the centre of African literary discourse, shaping and directing
much of the creative output of African practitioners. Irele (2001) speaks of what he calls the great
fortune of the African writer which follows the fact that the worldviews which shape the experi-
ence of the individual in traditional African society is a cultural compass that provides frames of
reference for communal life even in the contemporary era. Much of what Irele has to say of the
African writer applies also to film makers from the continent like Kelani. In his words, ‘The
African gods continue to function as within the realm of the inner consciousness of the majority
of our societies, and the symbols attached to them continue to inform in active way the communal
sensibility’ (25). This explains the easy resort to myths by the African writer and other creative
practitioners for whom myths continue to exert much influence not only as a creative but also as a
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natural force that undergirds everyday existence.

It is in this context that Stanley Macebuh (2001) should be understood in his identification of
the fundamental intention behind Soyinka’s interest in myth as an expression of his desire to dis-
cover in mythic history certain principles upon which contemporary behaviours are based and can
be explained. Biodun Jeyifo (1988) on his part views Soyinka’s deployment of myth and ritual as
paradigms for the creative exploration of the timeless, unchanging, recurrent, perennial and
imponderable aspects of human experience and natural phenomena that is ultimately resistant
to human domination. It is not, as Macebuh makes clear, an attempt at popularizing the
archaic, as certain critics have claimed. As he puts it, ‘ … there is a profound sense in which it
might be said that the chaotic nature of social behaviour in our time is the single most important
justification for Soyinka’s meditations on myths’ (30). Ofeimun (2014) agrees in the main with
Macebuh in his view that the gods are to be viewed as archetypal beings whose behaviours, pat-
terns and habits of mind are copied or projected by human beings in their everyday existence. For
him it is the need to learn about the gods, in terms of how human activities conform to or deviate
from their conduct, rather than valorizing them as objects of worship, that is the motivation for
studying them. But the use of myth in such creative context is often mediated to expound or
project preconceived ideological stands. The result of this is the reinvention or recharging of
mythic figures in creative productions.3
As in other cultures, Yorùbá hero figures are constantly reinvented and recharged for various
ideological and cultural purposes. This has led to syncretic and iconoclastic depictions of the
deities and their attributes such as that to be found in the works of writers like Wole Soyinka,
D.O. Fagunwa and Femi Osofisan among others (see Appiah 1992; Barber 1990; Irele 2001;
Macebuh 2001; Ofeimun 2014). The art of reinventing and recharging cultural superheroes,
putting mythic history and epistemologies into creative service is thus not exclusive to the
popular medium of video-films. Indeed African literature has often been characterized in terms
of its oral origins that has led many a critic to the literary misadventure of always seeking oral
‘continuities’ in African literature of European expression.
However, the point bears repeating that there are instances in which African, even Yorùbá
writers, have in their mythopoesis reinvented/recharged local superheroes. These writers, to
follow Biodun Jeyifo’s (1988) characterization of Wole Soyinka, are in spite of their fascination
with myths veritable mythoclasts, debunkers and parodists of myths and mythologies. Awodiya
(2010) has in this regard attested to Osofisan’s subversive interpretation of the Orunmila myth in
several of his works. In his play Morountundun, he reinvents a popular Yorùbá myth with his
Journal of African Cultural Studies 289

iconoclastic reinterpretation and recharging of the myth and figure of Moremi who, as myth has it,
undertook the masculine task of saving her community from their oppressors.4 In the original
myth, Moremi was a wife of Oranmiyan, a king of Ife, whose people were constantly under
the armed attack of Igbo (not the Igbo of south-east Nigeria) invaders. Moremi, a pretty
woman, through a Delilah-like stratagem allowed herself to be captured by the enemies, and
thereafter infiltrated the enemy’s camp where she was able to unravel the secret behind the
power of the invaders. A hegemonist, Moremi worked assiduously for the survival of her com-
munity. In the end, she saved her people but lost her only son, Oluorogbo, who had to be sacri-
ficed at the Esinmirin River to fulfil her vow to the gods that gave her victory.
In Osofisan’s reinterpretation of this story, the mythical Moremi has been replaced with Titubi,
the spoilt daughter of a wealthy trader not averse to using her influence with the police (an arm of
the corrupt ruling class) to get them to do her bidding and carry out her private ends including
intimidation of her opponents. In Osofisan’s story, the Moremi figure, rather than working for
the ruling class, is reinvented as a politically transformed Titubi whose short spell in jail and
in the camp of the peasant farmers awakened her to the injustice perpetrated by the ruling estab-
lishment against the masses. In this play that is set against the backdrop of the 1969 peasant
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farmers’ revolt (Agbekoya crisis) in western Nigeria, Titubi commits class suicide, joins the
rebel army of the peasants whose commander, Marshal, she marries as a demonstration of her
support of the struggle of the people from the predatory activities of their leaders. Thus for
Awodiya (2010), Titubi is Osofisan’s symbol of social justice (110).
Wole Soyinka in Ogun Abibiman (1976) immerses himself in the ‘racial myth of heroic,
redemptive action by messianic “race men”’ (Jeyifo 2004), in the manner he combines the
figures of Ogun, the Yorùbá god of war, iron and creativity, and Shaka, the famed leader of
the amaZulu, as leaders in the final battle between black Africa and the forces of apartheid. In
this long anti-apartheid poem, a call to Africa’s racial warriors to prepare for war, Soyinka
throws his weight behind the rallying cry of Samora Machel for the mobilization of the people
of Mozambique and the rest of Africa to prepare for war against then apartheid South Africa
and Rhodesia. For Biodun Jeyifo (2004, 258), Machel’s call and Soyinka’s reanimation of
Ogun and Shaka in Ogun Abibiman, as saviour figures and leaders, in the contemporary fight
against racism, at the very time the call was made in 1976, approximates Walter Benjamin’s
notion (quoted in Jeyifo 2004) of ‘messianic time’.
While Arugba, who is the eponymous hero of the film, Arugba, is recharged with the magical
powers of Osun, the Yorùbá goddess of fertility and procreative power, her patron deity, Osun, is
syncretized with Yemoja in what is apparently a song of homage to both deities in the opening
scene of Arugba. Yemoja, like Osun, is a female deity but Osun is generally associated with a
river, Yemoja which shares the same attributes as Osun, it would seem, is better associated
with the sea. The title of the film, Arugba, is a derivation of Arugba Osun, which is the
Yorùbá name of the votary maiden, usually a virgin from the royal household of Osogbo who
carries the spiritual calabash of Osun, the Yorùbá goddess of fertility and procreative powers.
The Osun Osogbo festival enacts a religious theme and is like the Otin festival (see Barber
1981), its localized version in Okuku, an example of what Ogunba (1967, 1978, 1991) calls hege-
monic festival. Much of festivals such as these, according to Barber (1981, 730), is focused on the
glorification of royalty and the propitiation of the Oba’s (monarch) crown.
Arugba is the protagonist-actor in the ritual drama of the Osun Osogbo festival, leading the
ritual procession from the king’s palace to the Osun grove on the banks of the Osun River. As
she leads the procession, with a calabash (which in Yorùbá is called igba) covered in red silky
cloth, she is forbidden to speak to anyone until the ritual sacrifice is completed. To this end,
her mouth holds lobes of kola nut that make any form of conversation impossible. As she pro-
cesses, grave and silent, to the Osun grove in the company of her attendants and huge crowds
290 R. Fasan
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Figure 4. Arugba, chaperoned by attendants, makes her way into the Osun Osogbo Grove.

of devotees and spectators closely following (Figure 4), in a modern re-enactment of the ancient
tradition of the ritual carrier, she is a symbol of fortitude and sacrificial forbearance.
Arugba, in this video-film is not only conceived as a warrior-defender of the weak and vul-
nerable, an accomplished artist and a passionate and faithful lover. She also represents a vision
of a Nigeria, even Africa, in transition from a corrupt, male-dominated past to futures of transpar-
ency in public and private endeavours. She is thus a weaponized symbol of female power, inde-
pendence and leadership in a society in dire need of physical and spiritual revival, cleansing and

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

1. Osun, the Yorùbá goddess of fertility and procreative powers, was one of 17 deities sent to create the earth
by Olodumare, God in the Yorùbá imaginary. She was the custodian of knowledge and wisdom; the
inventor of the divinatory art of Ifa. Fiercely independent and assertive, and variously married to Orun-
mila (the god of knowledge/wisdom) among other gods she left as she deemed fit, she had liaisons with
several other men but never lived with any of them. The conspiracy against her and the denial of her right-
ful position in the primordial delegation sent to create the earth had unpleasant consequences for the con-
spirators (Ogundipe-Leslie 2005). Symbolized by the Osun River and memorialized in the yearly Osun
Osogbo festival, Osun has today been appropriated by many, notably by feminists, as the figurehead of
female power, agency and independence. Her special powers to give children to the childless and barren,
and healing to the sick, are acknowledged in the rituals of the Osun festival.
Journal of African Cultural Studies 291

2. In the morning hours of 14 April 2014, teenage school girls were kidnapped from their dormitories by
elements of the extremist Boko-Haram, the terrorist group that would briefly establish a caliphate in
parts of the northeast before pledging allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In spite of promises
to ‘bring back the girls’ the Chibok girls have since never been found.
3. Materialist criticisms of Soyinka’s mythopoesis (see Femi Osofisan, ‘Ritual and the Revolutionary Ethos:
The Humanist Dilemma in Contemporary Nigerian Theatre’ Okike, No. 22, 1982, 72–81; Molara Ogun-
dipe-Leslie, ‘Ogun Abibiman’, Opon Ifa, Ibadan, 1976; Biodun Jeyifo, ‘Tragedy, History and Ideology:
Notes toward a Query on Tragic Epistemology’, in The Truthful Lie. London: New Beacon Books,
pp. 23–45). In a section of his vigorous riposte to these critics in his essay, ‘Who’s afraid of Elesin
Oba?’ Soyinka (1988) notes that, ‘The truly creative writer who is properly uninhibited by ideological
winds, chooses – and of course we can speculate on the sociological factors involved in this choice ad
infinitum – he chooses when to question accepted History … when to appropriate Ritual for ideological
statements … when to “epochalise” History for its mythopoeic resourcefulness’ (126, emphases in the
original). Biodun Jeyifo (Introduction, 1988) in this respect observes that Soyinka’s use of myth involves
‘a bracketing of or suspension of history’, and that ‘In the ultimate reaches of this line of reasoning even
history itself, and not just myth, is dehistoricized … ’ (xxvi).
4. On this point Muyiwa Awodiya deserves to be heard at some length in his own word: ‘Osofisan uses tra-
ditional materials like history, myth, ritual, festival, oral narratives, magic and religion from the subver-
sive materialist perspective to make them serve his own egalitarian purposes’ (2010, 84).
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