A Folktale About Efusentan Aniwura

I promised to share any information I came across on Efusentan Aniwura, one of the three powerful Yoruba women from the early 19th century. I recently came across something on Efunsentan Aniwura while searching for African folktales.

This story comes from this course guide on African Communication Systems from the National Open University of Nigeria (links to pdf).

Efunsetan Aniwura, the great Iyalode of Ibadan, was a wealthy and powerful woman of unusual boldness, strength and intelligence. According to accounts of books, biographies and films about her, she reigned as the Iyalode of Ibadan for years. No light was shed about her husband but she had only one child (girl), who died at a very young age, between the ages of 19 and 22 years whilst in labour.

Efunsetan was a very close friend of Madam Tinubu the Iyalode of Egba. She was a wealthy woman in their days. Till date it is said that Efunsetan was the boldest, most powerful and wealthiest Iyalode that reigned in Yoruba land. Her glory was rare and could not be compared with any other during her reign. Efunsetan was a business woman who travelled round the country to buy products like bitter kola, kola-nut, cocoa, etc, she was well-known among the Hausa and the western states.

Efunsetan had her own warriors and slaves like the king and released them for war in favour of her people. During her days, she helped to improve the economy of Ibadan through business transactions. She was also a good employer of labour. She was among the first women that had business transaction with the white men.This also helped Ibadan in civilizing the people. She was loved by all. Although a very strict woman, she was also very nice to her slaves and employees. She gave out gift and money to them freely at times without measure. A story was cited about a slave of hers who delivered twins in her absence. At her return, she gave her food, clothing, pomade, even money. She gave out her slaves in marriages and even conducted naming ceremonies for them, but all these stopped after the death of her daughter.

After the death of her daughter, every thing took a new turn. She was no longer submissive to God or the King, for according to her, God has failed her. So, God should manage his heaven while she managed her own earth. She killed her slaves at will for committing atrocities either by beheading, poisoning, etc. She gave a sanction that no cry of a child must be heard in her domain, neither must conception, courtship nor marriage take place. Any female that conceived would either die or have the pregnancy terminated by forceful abortion depending on her (Efunsetan) choice while the man responsible would die.

Efunsetan was said to be powerful in terms of diabolic powers. It was not stated if she actually belonged to any occult groups like the ifa, osun, witches, etc, but she had unusual powers which were common mostly among the witches. After beheading one of her slaves for getting pregnant for another of her slaves, even though her younger brother claimed he was responsible. Her brother conspired with her slaves to save the life of the slave girl. She refused all pleas from friends and family members. She went ahead to kill the girl by beheading, her right in the village square. Several attempts were made by her salves and slave’s lover and her friend to prevent Esunsetan from killing her (to save her). She found out through her powers and ended up in killing them instead.

It was after this that the king ordered her to be brought to the palace dead or alive, since every effort in summoning her to the palace had failed. At a second thought, he (king) decided to go with them robed in all kinds of charms. At her house she asked for their reason in her house, which she was told, she asked if she could be excused to pick something. She went back into the room and killed herself with majele (poison) saying “kaka ki ileku ile oya saa” – Meaning it is better to die than to face the shame of being arrested, ridiculed or punished.

After her death all her slaves were set free, some returned to their villages while some remained in Ibadan and Oyo. Efunsetan was a woman of great principle. She was also beautiful, wealthy and proud, which led to her destruction.

There is a lot going on in here that I find problematic;

i) Have you noticed that when it comes to very powerful women in history, this is not limited to the African continent, they tend to reach horrible endings. I’m feeling so many things right now because as I found this tale which searching for ‘African legends and myths’, I also came across the story of Queen Arawelo of Somalia.

Notice how Efunsentan Aniwura goes from being loved by her people to possessing the powers of witchcraft. I’ve decided to forever side-eye this particular retelling, not only because it may have been doctored (perhaps Efunsentan Aniwura pissed off some powerful people in her day) but also because of…

ii) …this piece of nonsense; “She was among the first women that had business transaction with the white men.This also helped Ibadan in civilizing the people”. Can everyone witness yet another case of what I was talking about in this post? The people (Nigerians) that researched, compiled and wrote this piece obviously thought there was nothing wrong in insinuating that contact with ‘the white men’ civilised the people of Ibadan. Where’s my kiss teeth gif?

iii) Also notice the emphasis placed on God and ‘her King’ towards the second half of the story when there was no mention of either of them before. We know that Efunsentan raised her daughter on her own so why would she have had to be submissive to the King? I mean more so than the average rich person in those days. What was her personal relationship with the King? I do not compute.

iv) Note how Ifa and Oshun have become ‘diabolic powers’, this is another reason I seriously believe the original story has been tampered with. Why would a Yoruba woman living in the 19th century when Christianity was yet to have taken a stronghold in West Africa view the Gods and Goddesses of her own people as diabolic? It is completely natural for a Yoruba woman to follow the Yoruba religion (though there are Yoruba people of today that may not believe this). Or don’t tell me there are people who seriously believe that in the early 19th century, most Yoruba people were either Muslim or Christian. Olorun oba!

v) Finally, “She was also beautiful, wealthy and proud, which led to her destruction.” I hope I don’t even have to go into how problematic this is. I now understand why in this interview, Niji Akanni, the director of Yoruba movie Aramotu asked how Yoruba culture could venerate women highly in myth but downplay their contribution in modern history.

They really could have said that the death of her only daughter lead to Efunsentan Aniwura’s depression instead it is her wealth, pride and beauty that lead to her ‘destruction’. In order words, women shouldn’t aim to be wealthy and shouldn’t dare be proud or beautiful because these qualities would surely bring them down.

/rant mode off

4 responses

  1. Wow, this was a very informative post, I have never heard of her before! The things you pointed out are very true, powerful women in history tend to have sad ending, accused of being diabolical and such… rebellion against God and King might be a justification to label her as diabolic… in African society, atheism and irreverence does not compute, thus people are often labelled as being demonic… She does sound very brutal though, if what she did after her child’s death is true! It would be awesome to meet you someday Eccentric, you have so much historical insight!!! :)

    • I am glad you found it useful! Hehe, to be honest I think atheism would not have been such an alien concept pre-colonial, of course not atheism as we know it today but when you look at how African religions are practiced, yes they take a lot of devotion but they seem to give a bit of leeway as well. For example, in the Yoruba religious philosophy, I often wonder if there is really a concept of ‘hell’, like the Orisa now associated with the Christian Devil, Eshu is nothing like that at all, he is more of a trickster.

      I do not believe a word of what was said in this folktale :D I will search for more stories on Efunsetan Aniwura. Have you heard that apparently Nzingha of Angola used to mercilessly kill pregnant women?

      It would be awesome to meet you someday Eccentric, you have so much historical insight!!!

      You know I feel the same way! If you’re still in Europe, I’m geographically closer to you now :D

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