Find Atakpame, The most western real settlement in Yorubaland

An ethnic group in Atakpame, Togo (The Ana Ife) hold on to a distinct brand of Yoruba they inherited from their forefathers, writes AKEEM LASISI, just back from the West African country.
Denise Fantchede would have been a Nigerian but for an accident of history as a native of Ife. But she is a native of Atakpame, a community of Yoruba origin in Togo and one of those whose ancestors migrated to the West African country when tribal wars raged in the 17th century. Yet, the same history that changed the course of her descent has made her multilingual. Fantchede speaks French, which is Togo’s official language. She speaks English, which she learnt in school and in neighbouring Ghana. She is also fluent in Ewe, one of the indigenous languages in Togo. Most importantly, her mother tongue is Ife (One of the native Yoruba tongues of Togo), which some scholars would call Ife-Togo, an ‘independent’ Yoruba dialect spoken by the majority of Atakpame indigenes, who trace their origins to Ile-Ife. (It should be noted that combined, all Yoruba subgroups in Togo are said to number about 0.3 Million)
Today, Atakpame is the 5th largest settlement in Togo by population.

Like Atakpame, like Idanre

In terms of landmark, Atakpame shares some similarities with Ibadan and Abeokuta. While the capital cities of Oyo and Ogun States flaunt the Olumo Rock and Oke Ibadan as their ancestral symbols, respectively, Atakpame, a settlement town that is about 160 kilometres away from Lome, the Togolese capital, defines its origin by seven mountains that surround it. Just like many other towns in Yorubaland, where myths are explored to trace the people’s roots, Atakpame’s history is not complete without reference to the mountains. According to some elders of the town, the rocks played supernatural roles when the natives were engaged in battles with other ethnic groups. This is how Atakpame also shares topographical and historical similarities with Idanre, Ondo State, a town famed for the huge and acrobatic mountains that surround it. According to Fantchede, Ife Togo is widely used in Atakpame because the people, who trace their descent to Ile-Ife, are the dominant group there. She, however, expresses concern over the future of the language because not many young people speak it. (Speaking more of French and other languages). She says, “The number of young people who speak Ife here is decreasing because of changes in the society and the fact that it is not taught in schools. But I speak it any time I have the opportunity to do so. Our elders also use it constantly.”

As a result of the entrenched cross-fertilisation that Ife Togo has had with French, Ewe, et cetera, it is easier for the Yoruba in Lome, Cotonou and Ajase {Porto Novo), among others, to understand one another than for the immigrant Yorubas in Lome to understand Ife Togo speakers in Atakpame – and vice versa.

A Yoruba scholar, Dr. Felix Fabunmi, notes that a language that is spoken by many people, such as Yoruba, usually has dialects that may differ from one another. In a research he conducted on Ife numerals, the lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, acknowledges Ife Togo, Ife Benin, Tsabe, Ajase and Idaatsa, which he describes as Yoruboid, being “the mother tongues of speech communities whose forefathers migrated from Nigeria to Dahomey, now Republic of Benin.” This invariably covers the brand spoken in Togo, too. Fabunmi notes in a study titled ‘Vigesimal Numerals on Ife (Togo) and Ife (Nigeria) Dialects of Yoruba’, “Today, the capital of Ife (Togo) is Atakpame. The Ifè (Togo) dialect of Yoruba is spoken by approximately 90,000 people in Atakpame town and the speakers of that dialect stretch from the Benin boundary around Bante and Tchetti up to Atakpame in Togo. “The majority of these Ife settlers migrated from Ija-Oku in former Dahomey into the Togolese territory and subsequently founded the city of Atapkame. “There are several other early settlers or ethnic groups in Atakpame, such as Fon, Ewe, Aposo, Kabrelosso and Ketokoli, but the people of Seti, Jama and Igberiko are predominantly Ife. Other Ife (Togo) villages where speakers of Ife reside include Alabata, Okutaya, Efujaye, Oko Asade, Asoko Ayepada and Yanmosile.”

Ife-Togo is well tone-marked

Yoruba is a tonal language, comprising the high, mid and low tones. That is how a word such as ‘odo’ can mean different things as the tone changes. These include odo (mortar), odo (river) and odo (zero). Also, ‘ere’ can be translated as play, sculpture and profit in different contexts and with different tonal marks, just as ‘agbon’ can be a word for basket, coconut or wasp. Investigation by our correspondent reveals that the Ife Togo dialect retains the tonal property of the Yoruba language. Apart from the inflexions that the natives interviewed demonstrate in their speeches, words in the books that our correspondent bought in Atakpame are duly tone-marked. Perhaps the only difference is that the mid tone, which is no more marked in the modern Nigerian Yoruba language, is still marked in Ife Togo. Indeed, our observation also shows that Ife Togo has not responded to the series of orthographical changes that the standard Yoruba has experienced, especially since the early 1970s. As a result, while Yoruba grammar now forbids the collocation of two consonants in a word, which makes Offa, Otta, Oshogbo and Ogbomosho to be written nowadays as Ofa, Ota, Osogbo and Ogbomoso, Ife Togo still flaunts words such as nwon (they), itsu (yam) and Atakpame itelf!

As another Yoruba scholar, Mr. Mudasir Alabi, however, notes, Ife Togo is as rich as any other dialect of the language. Based on his observation in some of the books, he notes that what it may also have lost in terms of the words that the standard Yoruba borrowed from English and other Nigerian languages, it has gained through its relationship with French and other languages in Atakpame and Togo in general. “But I could also see that Ife Togo uses phonological symbols in its writing of Yoruba vowels and consonants like ‘o’ and ‘j’,” Alabi says. Our correspondent further observes that the Atakpame variant of Yoruba is also imagistic. A review of the Ife Togo Bible and other story books bought by our correspondent that it is deep enough to produce a rich literature and writers the way the Yoruba Language has produced great works and writers that include Wole Soyinka, Niyi Osundare, Amos Tutuola, Olawuyi Ogunniran and Lanrewaju Adepoju. Our investigation does not reveal any major writer in Ife Togo, but we came across artistes, especially singers who have popularised the language in their works. Among them is Victor Star, who has released several albums, including ‘Nonu-Etse-Yeesu’, which can be translated as ‘Thank You Jesus’. “She is a very popular singer in Atakpame. Many people like her and she uses Ife in most of her songs,” Fanknede says. Our correspondent also visited a pharmacy shop operated by Kujo Akpo, where Ife is the medium of communication with customers.

Nagbe Kotannoa is very proud of the exploits of the forefathers of the Ife people of Atakpame. A historian, culture promoter and musician, Kotannoa is, in Atakpame, synonymous with the Tchebe traditional art, whose features are largely traceable to what obtains among the Yoruba in Nigeria. Particularly, he promotes the pole dance, a variant of what the Yoruba call ‘ageere’. In different parts of South-West Nigeria, ageere dancers entertain people at socio-cultural events, just as some of them work with masqueraders. Kotannoa, who worked in collaboration with Emmanuel Lambert to produce ‘Thebe: Danse Traditional au Togo’, a book that documents the activities of Tchebe dancers, agrees with the authorities that trace the history of Ife Togo to Ile-Ife, Nigeria. Kotannoa adds that when war eventually pushed the people to the present location in Togo, which had yet to be named Atakpame then, they met the Udu people, said to be of Ghanaian origin. But they were later outnumbered by the Nigerian migrants. Eventually, a prominent tree called Atakpara, from where the people get chewing stick till today, inspired a name that all the tribes agreed could define them. “Atakpara was adjusted to Atakparame until it was finally shortened to Atakpame,” Kotannoa notes. The Ife in Togo also pay homage to the seven mountains – especially the Oke Ekpa, the way natives of Ibadan pay homage to Okebadan (Ibadan Mountain) and the Egba salute Olumo Rock in Nigeria. Kotannoa explains that at a point the fight became heated, the Mount Ekpa opened and allowed the Ife Togo people to pass through to the other side. It closed as soon as the last person crossed. He adds, “When the enemies got there, the mountain opened again, but immediately swallowed all of them. It swallowed them like the Red Sea. So, whenever we want to celebrate Odun Itshu – the Yam Festival – our men go to Oke Ekpa to perform the ceremony,” Kotannoa enthuses. He gives the names of the other mountains as Oke Ologbo, Akposo, Omi Kosi, Agama, Aru Egidigbe and Batabali. A visit to the mountains by our correspondent showed that they surround the town, which corroborates Kotannoa’s assertion that they serve as a wall of defence for the people. Not much is, however, going on there, perhaps in terms of the need to really turn them into tourist attractions.

Echoes of Oyo Empire

While official figures say Atakpamé is the fifth largest city in Togo by population (84,979 inhabitants in 2006), sources identify the ‘Battle of Atakpame’ as one of the major wars the people fought in 1764. That year, the town had played host to a clash between “the rebellious Akyem vassal state with the help of Yoruba mercenaries of the Oyo Empire and the Dahomeans against the forces of the Ashanti Empire under their Asantehene , Kosi Oboadum. “The result of the battle was a crushing defeat of the Ashanti forces and the death of their Juabenhene (head of one of the royal clans). The repercussion of this defeat by the Oyo Empire was the destoolment of Kusi Obodum, who was replaced by a much younger and charismatic Asantehene, Osei Kwadwo Okoawia,” an online source says. However, there are no indications that the Yoruba in Atakpame in any way pay allegiance to or maintain any relationship with the Oyo heritage in Nigeria. But our correspondent saw sights and sounds of Yorubaland, including ‘real’ pounded yam (and not mechanised poundo yam), moinmoin and akara, which were on sale, as part of the cultural heritage of the Ife Togo people that their ancestors must have taken from Ife.

"Here, names also have meanings"[

In Yoruba, as is obtainable in many other African languages, most native names have meanings and are usually symbolic. ‘Babawale’ means ‘Our father has returned home’. That is why it is usually given to a boy born after the passage of a father in the family. Its feminine counterpart is ‘Yetunde’, ‘Yewande’ or ‘Iyabo’, names given to a girl born after the death of a mother. Atakpame people of Yoruba origin still keeps this tradition. For instance, Kotannoa says his full name is ‘Afo-kotana’ or ‘Afo-kotan-ninu’, meaning when people talk or say something, a lot is still buried in their stomachs (minds). Also. Agounkey explains that his name literally suggests ‘Ma-gun-mi-ke’, suggesting ‘Ma-gun-mi-ni-kese’ – ‘Don’t push me too much’ or ‘don’t push me with your elbow’, or, metaphorically, ‘don’t push me to the wall/‘don’t provoke me’.

Playing politics with Ife?

Although Kotannoa concedes that Ife Togo is neither official nor taught in schools, he believes that the language cannot die. While this contrasts with Fentchede’s position, who fears that a language not embraced by the elite is endangered, Kotannoa says, “Ife already dominates other languages in Atakpame. Even Udu people now speak Ife. But Ife people don’t speak Udu.” Experts have argued that it is not possible to separate language from politics. So it seems for Ife Togo and the local politics in Atakpame. Since Ife people trace their roots to Ile-Ife in Nigeria, one would expect that they would physically maintain their link with their origin. But this does not seem to be so. Chatting with Kotannoa, for instance, our correspondent wondered why Atakpame did not send any delegation to Ile-Ife when the new Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, was recently installed. His response indicates that Ife Togo would ordinarily want to oil its link with Yorubas in Nigeria, but there are some political issues at home. According to him, some politicians in Atakpame, at a point, wanted to fly sentiments that the Ife Togo people were not Togolese but Nigerians. Because this could weaken the Ife Togo people’s chances, they, too, have learnt not to take steps that their opponents could exploit to campaign against them.

Church to the rescue

Recalling that it was Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther that translated the Bible into Yoruba, it is interesting to find out that a Christian organisation is in the forefront of the propagation of Ife Togo in Atakpame. The group, the Association Chretienne pour l’Alphabetisation et la Traduction de la Bible en Langue Ife (the Christian Association for Bible Translation and Literacy Programmes) otherwise called ACATBLI, organises tutorials in the language, with a focus on people who never had the opportunity to acquire or learn it before. As Crowther did, one of the main achievements of the non-governmental organisation is the translation of the Bible into Ife Togo. Titled ‘Iwe-Odaye Imole-Ikannyi’ (Iwe Idaye Imole Ikeyin, that is The New Testament), the 635-page publication is already in the hands of many people, with ACATBLI’s Director, Kaleb Agounkey, saying only 2,000 copies are now in stock, from the 11,000 produced in 2009. The organisation’s literacy programmes are also being supported with several other books it has published. Among them are ‘Les Peuples Ife et Leur Origine’ – being a comparative analysis of Ife Togo and an ancient Egyptian language; ‘Obe Dictionnaire Ife-Francais’, which is an Ife Togo-French dictionary.

While there are also several publications on different books of the Bible, one other major lecture books produced by ACATBLI is ‘Gbale-ee Tana o Gba Ona’ – ‘Gbale ki o to Gba Ona’, literally meaning ‘sweep your home before you sweep the road’. The idea here is to help Ife Togo people to protect their identity even when they have to promote other values. Agounkey says the project was started by partners who came together in 1981. They began by developing the phonetics and phonology of Ife Togo. The project covers Bible translation, literacy and social development. The director says the training that the centre gives to people is not free, but it gets some funding from some organisations, which it uses to settle some of the bills. He adds, “When one of our partners who came from Sweden went back to her country, she helped in getting some funding from the Swedish government and other organisations. We also work with Ife people who work in other parts of Togo and Benin, because the area they occupy is very large.” Agounkey says ACATBLI teaches 3,000 people Ife annually and it has, since the beginning of the campaign, trained up to 25,000 people in the art of speaking and writing the language. “I am glad that a lot of people and the language are gaining from our efforts. Other tribes have published and dedicated their own New Testaments, but no one buys them. “In our own case, many people, especially those from different churches such as the Catholic, Anglican and Deeper Life, use ours. Some congregations and a church like the Deeper Life conduct all their programmes in Ife – their sermons, songs and all. Many churches who conduct theirs in French interpret it in Ife,” the director notes.

Nigerian films subtitled in Ife

Unlike Atakpame politicians, Agounkey hopes to network with Nigeria. He will, therefore, welcome any initiative that can make that happen. Specifically, he wants to work with Nigerian film and music producers in such a way that ACABTLI can translate their works into Ife Togo. He believes there is a market waiting to absorb that. But, while Agounkey is genuinely expecting that, some pirates may have started reaping where they did not sow in this regard. Our correspondent visited some film and music shops in Atakpame, where he found out that several Nigerian works are not only on sale, some of them have also been translated or subtitled in French, Ife and some other Togolese and Beninois languages – under very suspicious circumstances. Among the works sighted and bought by the journalist are ‘Ameka ye L’adem’ (featuring the likes of Funke Akindele and Ini Edo); ‘Jalousie’ (Aki and Pawpaw) and ‘Flavi Tiata’ (featuring Olu Jacobs and other Nigerian actors).

Stressful trip

By road, a trip from Nigeria to Togo ought to be fun-filled. Ordinarily, it should give a traveller the opportunity to experience three West African countries, with Republic of Benin in the middle of the three. He wants to sit by the window of the bus to see villages, see people selling different things by the road side and have access to one or two things he would like to buy. If he is a nature freak, he wants to smell the flora and fauna of different African towns and villages. But that may really not be on an international route like the Lagos-Cotounu-Lome. As this correspondent experienced, a lot of fun killers are waiting for the dreamer almost everywhere. First, how can a journey calculated to last six hours, which eventually lasts 10 hours or more, spin excitement? Within Lagos, it took one about three hours to reach the bus terminus in Mile 2, the Cotounu-Badagry end of the geography, from the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway end the journalist took off from. At Mile 2, we had to spend some four hours as the bus endlessly waited for passengers. Yet, when we eventually left Mile 2, we were filled with the hope that within six hours, we would be in Lome. But two hours after, the bus still did not get to Badagry, not to talk of Cotounu, as the road was bedevilled by traffic jams. Between Badagry and Lome, the bus had to stop many times, at checkpoints where the principal target of security guys is money, money and more money. Even at the borders where Customs and other agents are waiting like hungry lions, many passengers had to part with various sums of un-receipted cefas. The story was the same when this correspondent was returning from Togo. For one, be it at Seme or Cotounu-Lome boundary, West African borders are so rowdy, porous and corrupt that one could be tempted to think that the region is a million years away from civilisation.