Adunni Olorisha.

The oyinbo woman knew she was ill. She had tried many remedies prescribed by her European physicians, but none had worked. A voice came deep inside her and talked to her. It was forceful, persistent and persuasive, a voice from the past that was so old, it originated before she was born. It was a voice that, in the end, she had to listen to

The voice called itself her ‘iya’, mother. It spoke to her in the Yoruba language, which she had learnt in the six years since she arrived in Yorubaland from Europe. She had followed this voice from the university campus in Ibadan to Oshogbo, away from her European friends. And now she found herself on the banks of the Osun river, deep in the heart of Yorubaland.

‘This is where it all started,’ she told herself, with a knowledge of things she did not know she knew.

She was weak and tired, and she was dying. Her senses were fading, her vision a blur. She could only hear very faintly, in the far distance that yet was so close, the sound of native drumming that seemed to pound in rhythm with her heart. And she could hear, plainly and clearly, the voices of the priestess, the responses of the votaries and the chanting of the worshippers as they prayed to the goddess of the river. They asked for her blessing and for protection over themselves, their children, and their families. She knew enough of Yoruba to understand most of what they said.

Iya mi, orisa odo

Gbo ipe omo re.

My mother, River Goddess

Hear the cry of your child.

At one point, she must have fainted from dehydration and lack of nourishment. She felt her body carried high by unseen hands into the sky until she was looking down on the scene below. It was the same river, but it was fuller with the water overflowing the banks. And the surrounding bush was different. This was an older, more primitive time. There was little evidence of human habitation or activity. It was a virgin land, young, rich and luxuriant in its primitiveness.

She craned her neck and looked in all directions. As far as the eye could see, the rain forest extended in every direction, stretching over the horizon. Where the bustling busy city of Oshogbo should have been was a collection of thatched-roof huts, not more than a hundred at most, arranged around a central

clearing that must be the market square next to the kings quarters. Her eyes went back to the river. It lay before her like a giant snake, desolate and lovely, majestic as its muddy waters flowed east and south towards the sea. Suddenly, her eyes were attracted to a

.movement below. She looked closely and focused her vision.


On a foot path below, she saw a group of women approaching the

river. They walked quietly and slowly. Their heads hung low on their chests and they seemed to be in mourning. One of them separated from the rest, a tall regal, middle-aged woman with a queen’s bearing. This woman motioned to the others to stop and not to follow her. She walked on alone towards the river. She appeared to look around, and seeing what she was looking for, climbed a piece of rock that jutted over the river. As the oyinbo woman watched this queen, for so she must be, she saw the woman on the rock below raise her arms to the sky. She said something. It must have been a prayer. Then, she leaned forward, poised over the edge of the rock as if she was about to leap off the edge.

And strangely from the dim distance of time, the white woman watching from above knew. This woman below her with the regal bearing was the queen of Oyo, wife of Sango before she became the goddess of the river.

The white woman watched fascinated. She knew what was going to happen next. She looked at herself. Her clothes had changed. Instead of the flimsy European frock and shoes and the band she tied around her straight blonde hair, she had on an iro tied above her breasts with an oja like the woman below. She had the same red coral beads around her neck and wrists, and thin goat-skin sandals on her feet. He hair was plaited in an old African way that was long out of fashion and decorated with colored sea shells and native beads.

Then, she was there on the rock with the queen-woman. Now there were no longer two figures. They were one. And as she jumped, instead of a splash in the river below, she soared upwards and took


And thus, on gentle wings, she was borne aloft to the clouds.


Susanne Wenger, for that was the name of the white woman, opened her eyes. Immediately, she felt a change come over her. Her body felt strong, healthy and healed. Her European dress was back on her, but she was different. Whereas before, she could hardly stand, she now stood up straight. Feeling a strange need to test her strength, she leapt up into the air and landed on her feet firmly. She repeated this action several times until her feet hurt. She laughed out crazily. She understood.

She had been taken back in time to witness the apotheosis of the goddess Oshun. The great goddess, who was now her deity, had healed her. She owed her very existence to the great goddess. Henceforth, she would devote every fiber of her being in the service of her deity.

In the years ahead, as Adunni Olorisha, her new name as a high priestess of Oshun, she created a series of caves and grottos in that river bank sacred to the goddess Oshun. It was on that same spot by the river where she was saved and healed. She sculpted, decorated and painted this shrine with her own hands with scenes and depictions from the past of her people, the Yorubas.

Gone was the European in her. People came from far and wide to see her handiwork and to worship at her shrine. They marveled at the transformation of an intellectual German girl into the influential priestess of a Yoruba goddess. But we knew. She was ‘yeye Oshun,’ mother of Oshun. Like Aarin and Uren, Adunni Olorisha was the reincarnation of a goddess and the mother of the sacred river itself, and of the birds, animals and humans who drew sustenance from it.

Suzanne Wenger was born in a small town in Austria in 1915. From a very early age, she had an almost mystical connection to folk art. She felt a kinship with nature and the mystic origins and expressions of human culture – songs, artistic creations, festivals and rituals. From an early age, she had dreams of a leafy forest with giant trees and a muddy swollen river that meandered through villages of thatched-roof huts. She knew it was a vision of the past. But whose past was it

She little understood it then, but she heard and listened to an inner voice that gave her insight and inspiration as an artist of the new spiritual and expressionist age. As a young intellectual, she moved in the avant-garde art circles that had become popular in Europe after the Second World War, and founded the ‘Art Club’ in Paris.

But still, there was a disquiet in her soul. And she knew she had to go Africa, that mysterious, still largely unknown continent of ancient rivers and the original old religion of mankind. She knew all men came out of Africa. It was in Paris that she met Ulli Beier, a young German intellectual and language specialist, who she married and followed to Nigeria in 1950. Ulli had been made a lecturer at the newly established University of Ibadan. The couple moved around Yorubaland and quickly became engrossed in the promotion of ancient Yoruba art, music and religion.

Ulli would go on to establish ‘Black Orpheus,’ the leading magazine that promoted the works of the rising young Ibadan and Lagos based writers of the day – Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark and Chinua Achebe. He also formed an artists’ club in Ibadan, the famous ‘Mbari Club’ with his friend Wole Soyinka. When he moved to Oshogbo with Susanne, he organized the ‘Mbari-Mbayo’ group with Duro Ladipo, the ground-breaking Yoruba dramatist who went on to stage world-acclaimed operas based on the tragedies of Moremi and Sango. Brilliant and eclectic, Ulli wrote many books on Yoruba mythology, including the popular ‘Imprisonment of Obatala and other stories’ under the pseudonym Obotunde Ijimere. Reading this book as a child, I assumed the author was an actual and authentic native-born Yoruba.

After the couple divorced in 1959, Susanne settled in Osogbo and took the Yoruba name Adunni. After her illness and conversion to the traditional Yoruba religion, she became involved in the restoration of the long neglected ancient shrines on the banks of the Osun river in Osogbo sacred to the goddess Osun. She became famous all over Yorubaland. And when she became a priestess of Osun, she was known as Adunni Olorisha. I read articles about this strange white woman when I was young, and was determined to meet her.

My chance came when my mother Adedotun decided to visit her uncle Abel Solesi, who was Efunyemi’s younger brother. He was the only surviving son of the legendary Solesi of Ikenne. Since he had lived for so many years in Osogbo, my mother called him ‘Uncle Osogbo.’ I prepared for our journey to Osogbo by reading all the newspaper and magazine articles I could lay my hands on about Adunni Olorisha.

At last the day came. I was in secondary school and it was during our ‘long’ vacation. My mother and I went by public transport. We rode in a comfortable Peugeot 504 taxi to Ibadan, but a rickety bolekaja took us to Oshogbo. It was the first and only time in my life I was in one. Our bones ached for days afterwards. I kept my knees together and held on for dear life as we were crushed from all sides by a cage full of quacking hens, a large basket of yams dumped on our laps and even a bleeting goat that made the journey with us as a fellow passenger in the cramped cabin of the bolekaja.

To make matters worse, the driver decided he had to speed to make up for the time lost while his conductor looked for passengers at Agodi bus garage in Ibadan. Several of the passengers, mainly women, including my mother, shouted at him to slow down, as the lorry lurched from one side of the road to the other. It was much like the journey made by my mother on her trip to Ikenne from Ijebu-Ode almost a half-century earlier. Not much had changed in the rural heart of Yorubaland.

I was lucky. Uncle Osogbo had a friend with a colorful past and a strange occupation. He was from Iwo, so he was called Baba Iwo. He claimed to be a male witch or wizard, and everyone including Uncle Oshogbo believed him. He had no wife or children. He said he had a wife once, but she was a witch, an aje, who killed all her children while they were in the womb. He had finally destroyed her power when he too became an oso, or wizard. But then he had to flee Iwo when her coven came after him. His story was backed up by his mannerism, his imperious mysterious manner of speech and the way he looked.

He was a tall gaunt man, light skinned, with a single ‘Ondo’ type tribal mark on both cheeks. His eyes were large. They stared at you and were crazy looking. They seemed to look deep into your inner being until all the mysteries and secrets therein were laid bare. You could almost see those eyes not only probing deep into you but reaching in to pluck out your very soul. But he could also be charming, funny and entertaining. So, despite myself, I found myself drawn to him. He told amusing stories of politicians from all over Yorubaland who came to Osogbo seeking his services to protect them from political machinations and to strike back at their enemies.

He told us stories of how witches flew at night and sucked blood from innocent people as they slept. He even offered to give me a guaranteed protection against witches. Why would I think there were no witches or warlocks in my elite boys’ secondary school in Ibadan?

At his urging, and up till now I don’t know what possessed me, I laid bare my chest and allowed him to make three sharp incisions on my skin with a sharp razor blade. He rubbed in a small amount of a black sooty mixture of unknown purveyance. I did not ask what it contained. All I knew was that it burnt like fire. I certainly was afraid to eat in his house. I had heard stories of witches putting something in the food of young people they took a fancy to that turned them into witches. What if I ate something, then woke up at night and found myself flying through the house?

When I enquired about Adunni Olorisha, Baba Iwo smiled and said he knew her intimately. She was a witch too, he said, but a good one. He promised to take me to see Adunni Olorisha but he kept postponing the day, saying the time was not propitious. In the end however, Baba Iwo kept his promise.

And when I met the Iya Olorisha, I was not disappointed. She was a figure from my dreams. Her pale, wrinkled Caucasian, the enigmatic smile on that old face, those strange foreign looking pale blue eyes, the queer accent when she spoke Yoruba, and her deep reverie when she would sometimes go blank and stare into space even when one was talking to her, were things I would never forget. Baba Iwo had said she was a witch. I knew she was a goddess.

Years later, when she was interviewed by a reporter from Drum Magazine about her miraculous transformation from German-speaking scholar to Yoruba priestess, Adunni Olorisha said, ‘I was fulfilling my destiny. The river is my mother. She called and I answered.’

Indeed, the people of Osogbo understood that she was a Yoruba priestess who had been born by the will of the gods into the white man’s country. ‘She is one of us,’ they said. ‘A daughter of Osun, goddess of the river.’

But many of us knew she was the reincarnation itself of the goddess.

A New Age. Chapter 9: New vessels from old, pp 353-357.