I was warmed by the twinkle in her eyes. Playful and assured, Iya Alakun cajoled me to buy even more beads as she spoke of the significance of “akun” in the culture of the Yoruba people. I sat down.
Stories deepen our understanding of who we are as human beings. A great storyteller makes a promise that you will be led somewhere special. I realised that I was in the midst of a storyteller.
I surrendered myself to the company of Iya Alakun Oduduwa; the owner of the oldest bead shop in Ile-Ife and the custodian of the royal beads of Oduduwa.
From the outside, the facade of the shop with its rickety wooden frame couldn’t possibly tell the story of the wonderland within. Why this spot?
With clients from all around the world seeking out her beads, why had she remained in this exact location for over 50 years-in the same wooden structure-on the same dusty patch of the road?
She laughed heartily and looked outside towards the elegant high walls just across the road. The majestic, gleaming palace of the Ooni of Ife. As the custodian of the royal beads, this was the only location where her vocation, her history and her rich cultural relevance connected so perfectly.
With a voice full of pride she explained that the beads to make the ceremonial crowns of the high chiefs of Ile-Ife were sourced from her. Infact, the only items locked away for safe keeping were the beaded crowns in the glass cupboard.
Inside her closet of treasures, there were beads everywhere. Every colour, shape and size. How could she could possible know how many varieties of beads she had in stock?
Traditionally, beads hold a special place in the mythology of the Yoruba people. Yoruba beadwork is considered to be among the most sophisticated in the world.
For the Yoruba people, beads are not only used to decorate ceremonial items such as headpieces, necklaces, drums aprons and sheaths. Beads are also used for spiritual purposes, by priests and diviners.
I marvelled at the treasures in this most ancient town of Ile-Ife. This is surely a trove for tourists and culture enthusiasts. Across the road, in the palace of the Ooni of Ife, the museum of antiquities with its ancient artefacts was another reminder of the historical significance of Ile-Ife.
As I sat waiting for her daughter to put metal clasps on earrings to complete my set of beaded accessories, Iya Alakun began to converse with her grandson who simply stared at us in utmost curiosity!
I left with a promise to return again with all my friends. She laughed in a knowing way. Her face softened by smiles, her voice strong and fiercely ageless.
Once you are affected by a place, it stays with you in a permanent way. Ile-Ife is a very special town. Iya Alakun Oduduwa had allowed me into an important corner of her world in this most spiritual of places. In so doing, she had enlarged my own world in a very real way.