ITSEKIRI IS YORUBA- Papa Ayo Oritsejafor

Ayodele Joseph Oritsegbubemi Oritsejafor, fondly called Papa Ayo Oritsejafor by many of his numerous admirers is the founding and Senior Pastor of Word of Life Bible Church, located in Warri, Nigeria. He became the national president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) on 7 February 2005, a position he held for five years.. He was elected President of CAN, Christian Association of Nigeria.  As a result of this,  he became the first Pentecostal leader to hold the position. He is married to mama Hellen Oritsejafor and they are blessed with many children in the Lord

·      Sir, what would you say is unique about the Itsekiri people of Warri kingdom?

I am coming from the stand point of a pastor.  First of all, it is very important to establish the fact that Christianity started in Nigeria in Warri kingdom. It is what the average Itsekiriman or woman knows but they don’t talk about it. One of the reasons they don’t talk about it is a lack of spirituality. The first church that was built in Nigeria was not in Abeokuta, Badagry or anywhere. It was built here in the 16th century. The ruins of it are still here.

The first Christian missionary that came here was the Roman Catholic. In fact, the first contact with a white man was here. The Itsekiri people are the first contact with the white man.
By the way, the second thing that many people in Itsekiri may not elaborate on is that the Itsekiris are Yorubas. The Itsekiri language is a dialect of the Yoruba language. Most Itsekiris migrated from the Yoruba land. Some of them migrated directly from Ife, Some migrated from the riverine areas of Ijebu, and some migrated from Owelu, some from Ondo.  Some of them especially the ones that migrated from Ife, they migrated with the Ilaje’s. The Ilaje’s stopped at a point but the Itsekiri’s continued and they ended up here in the Warri kingdom.
Now, a few of them came from Benin. The Benin connection came from the palace. The palace connection is still Yoruba at the end of the day because the first Oba of Benin was a son of Oduduwa.
The first Olu of Warri was a first son of the Oba of Benin. That’s the Benin connection. The Itsekiri, When they moved here, they came with their Ife, The upland Yoruba’s called it Ifa. We are the waterside Yoruba’s. Our people will call the other Yoruba’sIroke. The upland called the Oyo people Iroke and other Yoruba’sIroke but the Yoruba’s called them AraOke. We are the riverine.
This history is very important because they are dying away.

In those days, the Ife which the mainstream Yoruba will call Ifa  was the god of divination. The Ife had told the Itsekiri people that a prince would come and become their king. Therefore they stayed without a king for a very long time. They were waiting for that prince, eventually this prince who was the first son of the Oba of Benin who was a grandson of Oduduwa. He was very proud so he had a lot of problems with Benin chiefs. They were going to kill him. His father who was the Oba of Benin, you know he was supposed to be the Oba of Benin after his father, but for his own protection, His father had to get him out of Benin. He gave him about 70 chiefs. They smuggled him out, put him in a boat and they performed all kinds of rituals. They put him in a boat then sailed to Warri. When he ended up here, remember our own people were waiting for a prince, they have been waiting for years.
When he arrived, they consulted their Ife again and the Ife says, “This is the prince”. So, that was how he became the first Olu of Warri. That was how the First Olu of Warri came about.
In those days, in the palace, in the Warri kingdom, they use to speak Yoruba. The palace was 100% Yoruba. Don’t forget the Itsekiri language is a dialect of Yoruba land and therefore a Yoruba language as it is till this day. The Benin’s are not Yoruba’s but the palace is Yoruba.

Ø Sir, in some quarter, some people says the Benin come from Yoruba land?

That can’t be disputed. Some people will argue it but I don’t want to get into that, because that is not the point of discussion. We are discussing Itsekiri. However it was the son of Oduduwa that moved to Benin and became king, according to history. It’s almost like our own history too. I don’t want to get into that side of it.
In fact before the late Ooni of Ife passed away, some years back, they did this their Ifa and the Ifa lead him to an Itsekiri village, not far from here and gave details of it and they traced it and came to the village, the village is called Omadina. I am partially from there myself. The people already knew that they came from Ife. The people from Ife traced them to the village and got to them and there was a great re-union.

Ø I was told that the Ooni of Ife has a permanent chamber in the palace?

Yes, because we are the same. Chief ObafemiAwolowo’s last outing was here. Shortly before he died, His last outing was here when the late Olu of Warri was crowned. When he left here, he went home and passed away.

Ø Yes, I read it in his wife’s autobiography that when he wanted to go on the trip, he complained of being tired. His wife advised him to send people to represent him. He insisted that he must go there himself.

Yes, He came himself and it was the last outing after that he passed. So, the connection was very strong. The Ooni of Ife came here and the Olu of Warri came here as well. You see the Itsekiirias made a big mistake by not emphasizing their Yorubaness. It’s unintentional though, they have down play their Yorubaness. The reason is because they migrated here other peoples came and mixed with them and they have almost forgotten who they are. They almost lost their identity. They are many Itsekiritoday who don’t even know they are Yoruba. They have been here so long the Itsekirihave unintentionally almost lost their Yorubaness. They lost their identity when you move to a place and you mixing with other people you start losing your identity. To a large extent in my opinion it as affected them. They needed to highlight that fact and this why I like what you are doing right now. I was very, very impressed years ago when Chief Abraham Adesanyathat was the head of Afenifere, he knew all this history and he used to come out strongly in defense of the of the Itsekiiri. I was really very touched by what he would do and say personally, I don’t play with my Yorubaness. I am very proud of it.

Ø Maybe if you give us a little information about yourself that the public may not know.

My grandmother was originally from Owoh, from my mother side. My grandmother from my father side is partly from Ilaye.My wife is from Ado Ekiti.  I was born in Lagos. I was born along MoloneyStreet. I am a real IsaleEko boy I did my elementary school at Holy Cross. So to a large extent, I am a Lagosian. I have a church funny enough around Moloneyabout 2 blocks from where I was born, where my parent lived, where I was raised.The church didn’t know when they got the place, so when I went to preach in that church and because I was very rascally as a young boy, the very bad boys in that area , once they hear I am around  they will all come to church. They will all gather around me. I am like one of their own. I always feel right at home. My people my people will try to drive them I will say no, no, no don’t. I was exactly like them. They were certain names they used to call me then. To an extent I see myself as a Lagosian. But later I finally moved back home. I went to secondary school not in Warri here. I was so messed up in my ways until I gave my life to Christ. Then I went to study Theology at Baptist seminary at Ogbomosho. I went back to the west. My father even went to school in Ilesa he was an old boy of Ilesa Grammar school. I am Yoruba in every way. My mother also went to school in Abeokuta. Itsekiiri is Yoruba, everything about me is Yoruba.

Ø Let talk about the Itsekiiri language when you listen you will know that is Yoruba.

If you want to say Good morning, I will say. Iro- Owuro Good afternoon, Ire-Osan Good evening, Ire Ale.

Ø That is Yoruba o.

Yes that is pure Yoruba. It’s just like any Yoruba dialect, just like Ijebu, Egba, Awori, Ijesha just different form of Yoruba, just a little deeper than the general Yoruba we all speak in Lagos.
But, we all have our own dialect. Is just like my people the Awori’s – who are the original settlers in Lagos. They came from Ife and migrated to Lagos, some of them went to Ado-Odo, Ota, Sango, they speak the general Yoruba language but they have Awori dialect which is different from other dialect but still Yoruba languages


 Other Yoruba’s may not be able to speak it but they will still be able to know and pick it, that this Yoruba language. For example, my surnameOritsejafor. In the upland Yoruba, you will say Oritsa alright which you call an idol. In Itsekiri dialect we will say Oritse. Oritse mean Oluwa(lord) The Almighty God. He is not referring to an idol. In most Itsekiri name, you will see Oritse. My surname is Oritse-jafor. Now if you follow it very well, oritse-ja-for, je – ka – fo (laughter).  Now you are getting it. It’s a Yoruba word. It means the lord allows us to speak. When you first hear it, you won’t know it’s a Yoruba word. God has allowed me to speak, that’s what it simply means. So it’s a Yoruba word.

Ø Why is this so important sir?

Yes, it is very important for the world to know who the Itsekiri’s are. They are Yoruba’s. For example, in the whole of the Niger – Delta, we are the only people that has the title the Olu of Warri. “Olu” is a Yoruba title. If you are not a Yoruba king, you can’t answer that kind of title. You will never see another Olu in the whole of the Niger Delta.

Ø The Portuguese have some connection with the Itsekiri as well, can you throw more light on this sir?
Yes, the Portuguese were so close to the Itsekiri, so close to the extent that the king of Portugal who lived in Lisbon, 15th, 16th century ago was so close to the Olu of Warri. That he asked the Olu to send his son to him. He sent his son to Lisbon and he lived in the king’s palace. You know the white man looked on the black man in those days, the white man felt every black man was inferior to them, but they didn’t treat the Itsekiri that way. If you read some of the Portuguese writings about the Itsekiri, they will tell you how well cultured they were. You will read some things, you will be shocked. Now when the prince got there, this is where I am going to shock you with this. The first African graduate was an Itsekiri. He was this prince.

Ø He was a graduate?

Yes, he went to the university while he was in Lisbon. He was to have gone to a seminary to become a Catholic priest but he could not handle that because of women issues. So he had to go to a regular university and he got a degree. When he finished, when he was coming home, the crown that the Olu of Warri uses today was made by the king in Lisbon in the 16th century and he put a cross on it. He made two ;one for the king and one for his wife, the Olori. You the upland Yoruba call it Olori, we call them Olori here too. He gathered the bishops and they prayed for him. They told him to go and evangelize his people. He came home, his Portuguese name was Dondomingo. But his Itsekiri name was Atuwase I, Now Atuwase II just passed. He was the elder brother of the present Olu. He was my very good friend, we were very close. The first Atuwase, his Portuguese name was Dondomingo and we have a Dondomingo school here. It was named after him.  The school is there today to immortalize him.
The crown the Olu of Warri is wearing now, the Olu’s have been wearing it since the 16thcentury.

Ø It must have been made of Gold?

No, it was made of precious stones and cross. This shows the connection with Christianity. When the prince got back and later became the Olu, he came with a Portuguese wife. He was killed, they didn’t like his Portuguese wife. In the 16thcentury that’s why I am telling you that Itsekiri had the first contact with the white man. He had children with his white wife. You know time has changed now and they’ve become very dark. For example, that my father’s photograph, you can see he is not dark skinned like me. My mother was very, very dark. Itsekiri also have a very strong connection. For example, the Portuguese called shoes sebatu. That’s what the Itsekiri call it till date. So there are some words that entered the Itsekiri dialect from there but they still kept the language, they did not lose it. In the general Yoruba language, you call rice Iresi, in Itsekiri it is Eroso, which is more Portuguese than Italian. The word Gold in Itsekiri is called Oro which is of Portuguese and Italian origin. They have some Italian connection too but Portuguese mostly. Historically our people were heavy slave traders. They became middlemen.
At a point the Olu of Warri became too powerful for the white man. In fact one of the Olu was exiled to Calabar. Chief Nana was exiled to Ghana by the British. He lived in Kumasi. 
The Ghanaian, the Efik and Cross River had some connections with the Itsekiri because of that the Olu was exiled there for many years.

Ø Sir, let’s talk about you now. (laughter)

There are many things that fascinates me. It’s an insight into who we are as a people.
I gave my life to Christ in 1972, I had an incredible encounter that changed my whole life. I stopped drugs, my family couldn’t believe what had happened to me. In fact one of my uncles drove from here to Ogbomosho just to see me to be sure. They called me out of class one day and they said, your uncle is looking for you. He used to be a police commissioner. He looked at me and said “is this you?” He cried and I cried myself. He said “you mean God can do this?” I was studying theology in Ogbomosho as a changed man. He said “you in a seminary? Studying bible? Studying theology, how on earth?” It was just too much for him. That was a lesson for him that God can change anybody. It taught me something too. Till today I never give up on anybody, I learnt that in my own life.
If God didn’t give up on me and was still able to change a man like me, then I don’t think there is anybody God cannot change. He can change anybody. Sometimes you read the bible and you don’t think that those things were things that happen. You know until you meet people that it actually happen to. I mean it happen to me. Some of my friends were shot by firing squad.
You know in those days, you must be very young, in the military times, if you are caught in armed robbery, you are shot by firing squad. The first group that were killed in Warri here were my friends. That should tell you the kind of life I had lived as a youngster. God has a plan for me. I can’t ever explain how I escaped that period. So many times I have ended with Jesus preaching the Bible. And then became the leader of all Christians in Nigeria from that humble beginning. It’s hard to comprehend.
When I was growing up in Lagos, only Carter Bridge was there, we have all kinds of bridge now. There used to be a place close to the whole Kingsway. We had a place we called key side. I lived right there with all kinds of people.
Where you have all those bridges now. There was nothing like that. I am just trying to tell you how lost I was. I was totally lost. That God will take a man from the streets and show forth the glory in him, some times when I think about it, it’s hard for my mind to comprehend but it all happened to me.

Ø  What are some of the experiences you had in CAN and PFN as president of both Organization that you will like to share with us? And how do you think CAN &PFN can be more effective in the society?

There is a huge problem in Christianity today and it has been there. That problem is disunity. It’s a huge problem. It has been that way for them not just in Nigeria. Why? I just can’t explain. Across and around the world, that is what gave Islam an inroad into so many places. Do you know that Turkey was 100% Christian? It used to be called Constantinople. Today Christians in Turkey are 0.02. It’s now a Muslim nation and that 0.02 percent are under serious persecution. It’s horrible. Do you know that Egypt was a Christian nation for over 1,000 years before Islam got there? In fact as thatTime, the Christians scholars, the most important city for studying scripture was Alexander in Egypt. It was the center of Christian study in the world at that time the pharaohs were not Arab. They were African for a thousand year Christianity thrilled. What happened? Division, they were fighting each other, jealous of each other, all kind petty squabbles’ and the Arab moved in.

Ø  Sir, when you were CAN president I actually interview a man of God who spent half of the interview attacking you. It was obvious that he wished he was in your shoes and was jealous.

That’s the problem. It was the problem even before then.  We go on with disunity and these are good friends from other faith take advantage. I can’t sit here and condemn all Muslims. There are good people among them. They take advantage of our unity and they still take advantage of it till today.  Christian just refuse to come together. This is why it is so difficult to answer your question, what can be done to make these organization better and those effective and be more productive. The most difficult problem is disunity. If the church in Nigeria and all over the world can find unity, the church will become more effective, stronger and much more productive.
You know that hospital come through thechurch, school came through the church. All the good things of life came through the church. So what happened? What happened in the church?Is you are working for a way to pull me down and I am working for ways to pull you down, I am working for your fault and you are working for my faults. So we have no time to concentrate on doing things that will bring progress. If we can put aside our differences and come together we can begin to concentrate on how we can improve the society and our lives, we can impact this nation much more. We bring in better things and greater things. One person may be Anglican the other person may be Pentecostal, Who cares? The belief in Jesus that is the issue.If they can remember that something bring them together, make them one. When BokoHaramis killing people in the North, they don’t care which domination you belong to,they will kill you all the same.They only need to know you are Christian that will be enough to kill you.
Jesus said, by this shall all men known that ye are my disciple if ye have love one for another. If we don’t practice that we are fake disciples. If we are real disciples we will love each other in spite of denomination difference. There are no perfect human being, there is only one perfect God. He is able to bring two imperfect people together. We all come to him with our imperfection. I will always have faults, you will always have fault, but God doesn’t have any faults. If we can put our eyes on him- and take our eyes from my fault and your faults.  

Ø Do you think that explains why there are more Muslim in politics than Christian?

Yes we betray each other Christian, betray each other in politics. It is easier for two Muslims to come together and agree even in their difference than it is for two Christian to come together. We form on your white garment and I am Pentecostal, because of that we cannot come together. Who cares about that nonsense?

Ø I actually sat under your teaching once at a cherubim and seraphim church, AYO NI O in Lagos. They were having an anniversary and I was one of those journalists that came to cover it from the Guardian newspaper. I knew that you are actually practicing what you are teaching.

I have a good relationship with the C & S movement you have to lift your head above all that. What is it that makes me a Christian? What makes you a Christian? Jesus Christ let us concentrate on him. No domination will be the same because they will have their doctrines. You want me to be honest with you a lot of this doctrines are manmade. Doctrines do not bring ustogether, Jesus does. Fine, this how you interpret a scripture; stick myth, that’s an internal thing, but when we come together, the focus should be Jesus. If we can dothis all Christian will be one and we will speak the same language. This was the problem I had when I was still the president of CAN, when I was president PFN the same problem. If we can do that, the church will become an incredible organization that will bring so much change and good to this country.

Ø What  message to the people?

The very first thing i want to say to the people is to Accept Jesus as lord and personal savior as simple as it sound, it is the foundation of life. It is upon that you being everything. Accepting Jesus makes you save. You can think right. It makes you begin to know what is important and what is not. You will see life differently. We are a confused people without Christ. A life without Christ it a life I will not recommend for anybody because I have been there. If you have Jesus your core value will be different. It will mean something. You will not be just be a person but a person of substance. The value you place on yourself is the value you place on other people then it in Jesus that makes you valuable.
The next thing is educating, all young people please and please value education. Education is beyond a degree it expose you. An educated man that have no job today is better than an illiterate that has a job. An educated man can create a job tomorrow.  He can accomplish for more. Apart from God anything is possible for him but an illiterate oh God! Illiteracy is a curse young people should run away. Do everything to be educated.

Ø Can you mention some outstanding testimonies in your ministry?

Before I went to Ogbomosho, the seminary I first attended was Bible school in Benin city owned by late Archbishop Benson Idahosa. While I was there we need to go on evangelism. There was a day and to a house and I saw people crying. A child has died. I was a very young Christian and I took the word of God literarily, not just seriously. I so believed it that I told everyone to leave. I took the child in my hand and began to pray and call on God and to my surprise after about 35 minute the boy sneezed and came back to life.
The mother had left the child with grandmother, her own mother. I don’t know if the woman is late now because she followed me to church that day. Everybody in that are went to church with me that day they all became Christian that day. I will never forget that. It is an outstanding testimony which I will never forget apart from my own salvation which I have shared with you. I will never forget my salvation as well because it was outstanding.

Ø How and when did have your calling sir?

My father had two wives my mother was the first. Her first child was a girl, my eldest sister. She went to the first Baptist Church in Lagos she went to church and prayed to God that if you give me a male child that I will give him back to you, that was how I was born.
When I was born for the first five years of my life I could not talk. My mother said that the doctor said nothing was wrong. There was no medical abnormally. She said I only make a sound when am hungry. On my fifth birthday. According to my mother I began talking like an adult. I was born November 10 the day I turned I just started talking.

ITSEKIRI IS YORUBA- Papa Ayo Oritsejafor ITSEKIRI IS YORUBA- Papa Ayo Oritsejafor Reviewed by Lorine Wyman on December 15, 2019 Rating: 5

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