“Odabo o” Susanne Wenger, Adunni Olorisha

“…She has given her special talents for many years, almost a lifetime, to demonstrate how arts can be borne out of the culture of their environment. Anyone who has visited the site (sacred groves of Oshun Oshogbo) will appreciate the magical qualities it possesses. Although there are many fascinating and historical places throughout this heritage-rich country, I know of no other, in contemporary times, that has given birth to such a rich vein of Artwork.” (Keith T. Richards, former Managing Director Guinness Nigeria in Susanne Wenger, Her House and Her Arts Collection-Adunni Olorisha Trust)

I asked an Austrian friend who lives far away in Argentina if he had heard about the death of Susanne Wenger; the celebrated Adunni Olorisha of the world famous Oshun Oshogbo fame. He said yes, he heard it from the same email I just sent him asking if he had heard of it. Then he asked if the Yoruba people of Nigeria gave Ms Wenger a befitting burial. I took in a deep breath before I answered him. Of course Nigeria remembers and honors her. Of course she was one of us; a high chief of the Osun-land; an olorisha of the Yoruba race!

On the day Mama Adunni died, I got a call from an old friend in Austria informing me that Mama had passed away and they were keeping it secret until after the Yoruba traditional funeral rites which as a high chief of Oshogbo, she was entitled to. They wanted to honor her death by not making too much noise over it until she had been properly laid to rest according the specifications of the Yoruba traditional she was engaged herself in for many decades. As I was dropping the phone, I heard NTA news announcing the death of Susanne Wenger, the Adunni Olorisha. In hours after that call, I had received so many sms messages and notices from friends from around Nigeria asking if I had heard the same thing. The following day, most of the leading newspapers and radio in Nigeria had comprehensive reports of the death. This is not so much as about Mama’s wishes for silent departure, but the fact that Nigeria did not want to allow such a great woman to die unannounced and uncelebrated like fowl who was nurtured until the day of festivity.

Virtually all the news reports and commentaries of Susanne in Nigerian news media reports of an Austrian woman (a White woman) who came into the natives of Oshogbo and uplifted the culture of the Yoruba people through her activities in Oshun Oshogbo sacred groves. This is the light in which people view Susanne Wenger. But if we had known Susanne Wenger better, we will know that her life and time transcended beyond the “white woman” who became involved with the culture of the Yoruba but see her as an item in the plan of the gods for the preservation of the culture of Oshogbo and she played her role to that effect very effectively. She was a woman who accepted her life as it played out and she was well celebrated for it.

What can one say about the death of a woman who died at the age of 93? Can we say we are sad that she died? No. rather we shall rejoice and remember the good deeds which our faithful departed left for us to remember her by.

There are so many cultural institutions in Nigeria and each big and interesting enough but the annual Oshun festival in Oshogbo, the now famous Oshun Oshogbo Festival became famous globally through the efforts and encouragement of Mama Adunni Olorisha. She was dogged in her belief in the groves and she was ready to lay her life for the preservation of the Oshun groves. I recall when once when the Adunni Olorisha Trust (AOT) got a request from Mama to come and help her with the issues of protections of the groves. Poachers were killing some of the animals in the groves and she wanted bunch of native security guards to keep vigil at nights to protect the animals in the sacred groves (because all were complementary to making the groves a sacred place). She was willing to sell some of her personal paintings to pay security officials to who should preserve the animals in the groves from unfriendly neighbors. I was with her for weeks and throughout that period, her major concerns were the safety of the life and entity of the sacred grove. She was attacked by some of the enemies of the groves yet she remained dogged in her belief that the preservation of the grove was keeping fate with the devotees and worshippers. I then saw her as a passionate woman who was not giving to the gallery but was fulfilling her roles in destiny. She thought the gods had given her the inspirations to paint and she should use the proceeds from such painting to guard the groves.

Mama, as all the people around her called her was a very jovial and warm person. All my encounter with her and my personal interactions with her was colorized by this feeling of a warm and accommodating person; generous and all inviting. There was never a time I went to see mama and found her cold or rude or unwelcoming. She was people oriented; her house would be dead without the usual noise of children crying or adult playing or groups singing or masquerades praying or one form of rituals or the other dominating the airwaves. Like the late Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, Mama’s house only has one private room- the rest of the rooms and floors and toilets and balconies and backyards were opened to the public. She could careless who you are as long as you came in peace the house is there for you. It was only when she became so old and weak that her adopted children considered making a second toilet for the teaming member of the public who constantly came around her.

I remember the first time I encountered Mama; I stared at her endlessly until she asked me if I was fine. I recall one of our several meetings when I had informed her that I was going to study some ridiculous courses in one school and she told me, “…you know what is good for you; carry your mat and go to your village to sleep with your grandparents. From your folks in the village you will learn wisdom. And was she right? A book was the by-product of taking such advise. I published a book from after interacting with my old and knowledgeable folks.

I am very happy and proud to see the so many accolades that Nigerians from home and abroad have poured on the memories of Mama. She deserve whatever encomium we give to her. She was strong and she was helpful. She did her best under the circumstances. At a point she felt like some of the foreign folks that came visiting her were treating her like an animal in a zoo and she protested. She would insist she wanted to be alone and resting. But she hardly told that to any Nigerian who visited her. She would say to me “Kaabo o” as she would welcome me using Yoruba language.

Mama, finally and at last you had gone to be with the gods- the gods you served so diligently. I will forever recall your jokes some few years back; that if you are sick and people sneak to return you to Austria, with your last remaining strength, you would craw towards the airport so that you would be found dead heading back to Nigeria! Mama, you chose a life the way you wanted, you won a great life and you lived that life flamboyantly. I am very happy for you and very proud to have known you so fairly well. Karl and Andrea Schrammel (along with their children) send farewell wishes to you. Like anikulapo, life humbled you and even death envied you. There is no one who has come and would never die. It is your time to go now but we shall remember the good things you did for and with us while you were around. And we will keep vigil to the memories of your goodness. As you rest Mama Adunni Olorisha, Susanne Wenger, ple

ase rest in peace.

When you came in this world, you cried and everyone surrounding you laughed and happy. So, do something with your life, so that when you leave the world, you keep smiling and everyone surrounding you will cry and sad – Arabic proverb

Written by
Dele A. Sonubi
Join the discussion

  • ..Thank you for this beautiful story of the life and times of Adunni Olorisha Susanne Wenger. The Austrian born Nigerian goddess. I first heard about her from the NTA some years ago. And when a lecturer taking us Research Methods in my school in 2011, talked about her in one of our lectures, I became interested and curious to find out more about this great Austrian woman. Thanks for giving me a clue as to her life and times. I greatly appreciate it.

    • Dear Mr. Okpame,
      It is amazing that for ten years, I did not see this your comment. I am awfully sorry. It is not my style to ignore comments particularly when they are motivating and nice like those of yours. I agree it was a privilege to have met mama, and I think you have a good source once you start digging about her. I am sure you already have your sources now, but then there is also Adunni Olorisha Trust that can similarly support your search should you still be interested. Kind regards

  • Dear Mr. Segun, thanks for your nice words and your encouragements. ofcourse i am highly encouraged by good comments like yours.

    I knew Mama very well… we were great friends and I learn quite a lot from her. I am happy she has gone eventhough I know it was a pity but then tell me who will never died. Her 94 years were splendidly spent

    Thanks again


  • Hi Dele, thanks for your tribute to Adunni Olorisha! I met her twice at Ibokun Road and she was such a gracious welcoming & wise person. Unfortunately, I lost contact a couple of years ago with my friend Doyin, who was at her side when Mama died. So, I only heard of Mama’s death a couple of weeks ago. Nigeria has lost an irreplaceable champion of Yoruba religion and culture. I pray that the Trust to protect the Grove may succeed in preserving Mama’s legacy for generations to come.

    I am, I must say, slightly shocked by that someone posted in reply to your article Damola Awoyokun’s attack on Soyinka and traditional Yoruba religion. Some people have no sense of respect or propriety. Having said that, I commend you Dele for leaving their posting up.




    In his widely published tribute to the late Susanne Wenger, Wole Soyinka drapes the traditional religion [TR] in richly embroided aso oke. He singled out its virtue of tolerance, made an example of it and completed the tribute with an ‘irreducible’ instruction: “Go to the orisa, learn from the orisa, and be wise.” Really?

    As usual, Soyinka zeroed in on the superficial at the expense of the fundamental: that TR is a system of superstition; that like other systems of superstition, it not responsible to objective verification and empirical analysis; that it is incompatible with requirements of progress and civilization; that the human mind has a duty to follow what is true and not just what is traditional; that the golden traces of beauty, justice, truth, love, ethical emphasis that TR holds up as embroideries for PR are eternal values older than any religion. (All religions appropriate these values to look credible and seduce the unwary).

    Invention of TR started with anxiety about the unknown. In terms of space, this translated to curiosity about what lay beyond the village and the skies; and in terms of time: wanting to know what the future held. It was believed that there is a master script somewhere, the setting of which is the earth and all human beings are characters in it. To have access to this script is the reason for divination, which explains why there are terms like kadara, ipin, ayanmo, akunleyan, akunlegba, akoole. Modern philosophical consensus has established all these are false. There is no destiny; nothing had been predetermined; there is no fate. We are our own meaning. Our current situation or our tomorrow is a tabla rasa that is why they are products of our choice. No more. We are responsible for what we do and this determines who we are. There is no ori or chi that had negotiated a good or bad contract for one’s destiny. And yet the soft force driving all religions is this concept of predestination, to know what had been written down for one’s situation and the world’s.

    Among the Yoruba, the divination is Ifa. Here is a typical verse from Otura meji, a principal Odu: …adia fun Aderomokun omo ooni, ala’na kan esuru, n’ ijo ti m’ ekun se raun ire gbogbo; bi okan ba yo ninu igbo a ba ona wa, ire, ire gbogbo ma ma wa mi wa o, ire gbogbo… What makes a literary work first rate is embedded in this incantation. Not only its flow of cadence, but each word being an anticipation of the next enacts the yearning for determinism they convey. Prince Aderomokun may never have existed but was invented because its meaning and the music of its syllables props the idea the verse carries. Nevertheless, must we allow this literary beauty to obfuscate the fallacies resident not only in the verse but also in the whole of all divination systems? Who says that every time a quarry emerges from the bush it heads for the village path? (Fallacy of hasty generalization and unwarranted assumption) And since this animal fortune has happen to the village, therefore fortune will come your way too? (Fallacy of false cause)

    These fallacies are not unlike the odus of other scriptures. An example: that after suffering family exclusion, deprivation and security threats in the bush, the biblical David rose to the leadership of Israel hence this would happen to you too after you suffer likewise. Or when you suffer and become leader, it is because it had first happened to David or any other biblical persona. Glossing over the superficial but zeroing on details and the causal relationship among them is the beginning of thinking, the automatic enemy of divination.

    Even with Ifa, mysteries of life persisted unexplained. This gave the grounds for the foreign religions to sweep TR away. Not that they were essentially different but at some points in their development they rendered themselves open to the current state of thought and scholarship, to findings of reformists like St Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Omar Khayyam -a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. Hence, these foreign religions were equipped to offer sophisticated answers to the quest for understanding and attempts to find clarity in the several contradictions of life. Since wisdom is acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said, converting to them seemed a wise choice for our ancestors.

    But not without a fight. This is why the claim that TR is tolerating is largely imaginary. TR looks tolerating because it is in the minority. When Islam and Christianity were seeping into the villages and TR was the majority, history discloses several instances where churches and mosques were razed down and converts massacred or disowned by their own families for worshipping a white man’s God or going to a white man’s school. Now being the minority, TR is emasculated of its powers of intolerance. This is not the same as being tolerant. It is just the aftermath of emasculation, the step before extinction. Intolerance is the evangelical zeal to be the sole majority. This is why now the foreign religions are always at loggerheads, striving to outdo each other in mass violence. To buttress TR’s capacity for tolerance, its spin-doctors cite: Ogun worshippers do not fight their Sango colleagues. But they are under the same umbrella just like Baptists and Anglicans or Nasfat and Ahmadiyya. It is all the same incestuous tolerance whereas the one of virtue is the ecumenical tolerance.

    Conceptually, no religion can tolerate the other. All of them insist: ‘I am the truth not you… I have the word of God, it cannot change.’ It is a dogma. And dogmas like stubbornness demonstrate a lack of curiosity which is the fuel of development. The foreign religions that were brimming with fresh bulletins from truth now resisted new and advanced findings of truth in humanities or sciences. As representatives of outdated knowledge and hoary ideas, they are now like TR: irrational. And a religion can only be intolerant of another religion because it has first become intolerant of rationality. From this, other monsters burst forth, spill over to other aspects of life.

    In this age of democracy and suicide bomber, one reads with horror the case of Olunde the eldest son of Eleshin who in Death and the King’s Horseman commits suicide so he can serve as the heavenly courier of his dead king. The play tells us he is a medical student; he himself mentions that he is “attached to hospitals all the time.” Meaning: he is not simply a medical student; he has enough sophistication of intellect to have passed pre-clinicals. How come such a mind trained to preserve life, flies home and takes his own life because of a religious stipulation? Iyalode snide at his undead father: ‘we fed your sweetmeats such as we hoped awaited you on the other side…’ This mindlessness is one with that of 19 young men, some studying elite courses in German universities who on a September 11 hijacked planes, turned them into altars and immolated themselves since they have been promised busty virgins on the other side. Why shed blood? Why get immolated or crucified to save one’s people? Extremisms own their irrationalities to the superstitious underlay of religions.

    Sutekh, Tammuz, Zeus, Manawyddan, Ra, Ubilulu in their days were Almighties with magnificent temples built to them and hundreds of prophets, seers, viziers in the business of interpreting their commandments. Where are they today? But these ex-Almighties should be commended for their precocious wisdom: having realized early the need for a post-religious society, they tore up the scripts and left the stage hence demonstrating to us the true and irreducible instruction.