- Omoluabi: Ulli Beier, Yoruba Society and Culture
Wole Ogundele's book is a unique, informative, and eloquent biography of Ulli Beier and the Yoruba society and culture that Beier joined in 1950. The text is unique because of Ogundele's recreation of the collaboration between Beier and the Yoruba society and how they promoted each other. Ogundele himself describes the book as a "cultural biography" (17). The biography can be situated broadly within the panegyric tradition of the Yorubas. This tradition, as discussed by Karen Barber in I Could Speak until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women, and the Past in a Yoruba Town and as I considered it in my Telling Our Stories: Continuities and Divergences in Black Autobiographies, foregrounds individuals and communities for praise, and sometimes for criticism, because of their roles in the society. Ogundele's biography is a laudatory rendition of Beier's significant contributions to the development of Yoruba society, culture, and literature. Like several other life-writing texts, the book seeks to justify and immortalize, and deservedly so, Beier, a native German, who became Yoruba and a crucial member of the traditional religious and intellectual classes.
The subtitle of the book betrays the content. The word omoluabi, even to the average speaker of the Yoruba language, is a word of endearment, an epithet that goes beyond the individual to celebrate the community that produced the person. The blurb of the book notes the difficulty in translating omoluabi into English, but sees it as a referent to someone of "integrity, wisdom, and patience." What Ogundele does with his book is to show Beier as a man of integrity, wisdom, and patience in his encounter with the Yoruba world. The Yoruba society in turn shows that it is full of omoluabis in its reception of Beier and his ideas.
The book is divided into eight chapters that deal with Beier's activities in various parts of Yorubaland, including his encounter with the traditional Yoruba [End Page 198] religion and monarchy; his development of Yoruba theater; his research in traditional Yoruba literature and art; his promotion of African literary renaissance in Mbari Club in Ibadan; the publication of the journal Black Orpheus; his work as the director of the Institute of African Studies at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), among others. Just as Beier is an omoluabi who works to promote the Yoruba and other African cultures, he collaborated with other omoluabis such as kings, Wole Soyinka, Es'kia Mphahlele, J. P. Clark, Chinua Achebe, and Christopher Okigbo. In addition to telling the story of Beier's encounter with Yorubaland in words, the pictures in the book show omoluabi Beier and the other omoluabis he worked with. Each of the pictures is a significant aspect of the story of Beier's encounter with Yorubaland.
Ogundele's book is a must read for historians, archaeologists, and sociologists engaged in reconstructing the history and sociology of late colonial and early postcolonial Yoruba society. It is also unavoidable for literary researchers studying the development of Yoruba oral poetry, drama, and the traveling theatre. Ogundele's creativity makes the book accessible to the reader. The use of Yoruba words in the chapter titles and in the text underscores the overarching importance of the language in the encounter between Beier and Yoruba society.