In the early 1970s, when Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka wrote his play, Death and the King’s Horseman, he embalmed a portion of Yoruba culture which suggests that there is a connection between the world of the living, the world of the dead and the world of the unborn.
Based on real events, Soyinka narrated how it was a norm for Elesin Oba, known as the king’s horseman, the king’s horse, and the king’s dog to all die in a suicide ritual after the king’s passing. The trio — Elesin Oba, the horse and the dog — were expected to go on to serve the king in the afterlife.
But in Ogbomoso, outside Soyinka’s play, one king’s tortoise, who connected all three worlds presented by the Nobel laureate, defied these odds to become the most popular animal in southwest Nigeria today. This animal is none other than the great reptile of Ogbomoso, fondly called Alagba (elderly) — for his length of years.
Alagba was reported to have been brought into the palace by Isan Okumoyede, the third king of Ogbomoso who reigned from 1770 to 1797. This tortoise has gone from being a king’s pet to being a companion for kings, and he is eventually on his way to becoming a deity in the history of the kingdom.
In connecting Soyinka’s worlds of the dead, the living and the unborn, Alagba served the dead, Oba Okumoyede and many other kings; he entertained the living, many tourists who came visiting from across the world; and he would serve as a golden point in the history of Ogbomoso for many yet unborn.
‘PEOPLE ASK IF ALAGBA IS ALIVE BEFORE THEY ASK IF OUR KING IS’
Jimoh Oladunni Ajagungbade, Soun of Ogbomoso
Adedeji Atiba, an Erastus Mundus scholar in Poland who hails from Ogbomoso, says Alagba “was more than an animal… he was a symbol of the Ogbomoso township”.
Atiba, who is currently in Spain, told TheCable that anywhere he goes and tells people he is from Ogbomoso, they ask him if Alagba is still alive before they ask about the wellbeing of the king.
“I don’t know how to explain it. But one could say he was almost as popular as the king,” Atiba told TheCable by phone.
“When you tell people you are from Ogbomoso, people will ask you about the veracity of the fact that Alagba is 300+ years old. Then they will ask if it is still alive before they ask if our king is alive.”
Alagba may have outlived many kings, but the king who is said to have catered for him the most is the only king of Ogbomoso in the last three centuries to have outlived the elderly one.
Toyin Ajamu, the private secretary to the soun (king) of Ogbomoso, Oladunni Oyewumi, said his principal used private resources to cater to Alagba during his lifetime.
“Alagba had lived in the palace for centuries. The tortoise played host to many monarchs in Ogbomoso.