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Samuel Johnson of Yorubaland, 1846-1901

Identity, Change and the Making of the Mission Agent


Wolfgang-Ulrich Fischer

This study aims to understand how the nineteenth-century African agent of mission appropriated change without losing cultural integrity. Drawing essentially from the contexts that produced the man, from Sierra Leone to the Yoruba country, the study shows Samuel Johnson as embodying the opportunities and ambivalence that progressively accompanied Yoruba contact with Britain in the people’s war-weary century of change. Largely influenced by German missionaries in the British mission environment of Yorubaland, Johnson had confidence in the bright prospect the missionary message held for his people. This propelled him into a struggle to relieve the distressed country from its woes and to preserve the fading memory of its people. In an age of renewed cultural ferment called globalization, could Johnson offer a lesson in how to appropriate change? This is the concern of this volume.


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Chapter 2 An Unpromising Beginning


Out of the black earthen pot comes the white corn porridge. — A Yoruba anecdote The white corn porridge, ẹkọ, either in its hot f luid form or in its cold, jelly- like form,1 is a popular meal among Ọyọ Yoruba. As a popular food, the apparent contradiction between the product and its preparation matrix has found a place in their anecdotes. For the porridge is often prepared in an earthen vessel, which, if not stained black during pottering, eventually acquires its colouring from accumulated soot that accompanies repeated use on the local firewood stove. This contrast between the white colour of the porridge and the black matrix in which it is cooked provides the Yoruba the verbal articulation of the paradox of life. This paradox exemplifies the contrast between the man Samuel Johnson and the social environment from which he emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. If Adrian Hastings’ characterization of mediaeval Africa may be extended to the first half of the nineteenth century, it is clear that at this period also ‘the balance of life, physical, social, spiritual, was well con- structed in principle but easily disturbed in practice’. Hastings adds that: It was not a golden world in which generations passed without undue pain, crisis, or history. The rains failed. Children died unexpectedly. Men fought over women and murdered one another in anger. More powerful neighbours seized one’s cattle 1 Both the hot porridge form eaten as a breakfast cereal and the cold, jelly-like prepa- ration are called...

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