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Stoke Newington woman organised tomorrow's Yoruba festival in memory of her close friend Fela Kuti

PUBLISHED: 13:22 22 July 2011 | UPDATED: 13:32 22 July 2011

Yoruba Festival organiser Jacqueline Adewunmi at her home. Sat 31 July 2010

Yoruba Festival organiser Jacqueline Adewunmi at her home. Sat 31 July 2010

Copyright Peter Gettins

Close friend of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Jacqueline Adewumni is praying tomorrow's weather will be kinder than last August.

That was when the 36-year old barrister who lives in Stoke Newington, held the first Festival of Yoruba Arts (FOYA) celebrating her native Nigerian culture.

But it was called off half-way through amid torrential downpours, leaving her £20,000 in the red.

Undeterred, Jacqueline ploughed ahead to organise another one this year – a testament to her passion for her culture, which has been spread to all five continents through slavery and economic migration.

Her determination has paid off, and the festival has attracted council funding and was even chosen to represent the cultural Olympiad next year, running alongside sporting events.

FOYA is now registered as a charity and Jacqueline has been working flat out seven days a week to make this year a success in its new Gillette Square office, packed with volunteers.

Yoruban footballers Obafemi Martins and Emmanuel Adebayor have promised to turn up on the day, along with award-winning Nigerian fashion designer Adebayo Jones and Bunmi Mojekwu, who plays Mercy Olubunmi in TV soap EastEnders.

Jacqueline, whose mother is a devout Christian and father a Muslim, feels that for a long time her people have been encouraged to forget their roots.

“Society has said: ‘Your tradition is wrong, what you have had for hundreds of years, that identity as a people is wrong, so take Christianity and be saved’.”

‘Intense culture’

“The young generation of Yorubas say: ‘We can’t be bogged down by old ways of thinking. We are going to embrace who we are by trying to understand our own culture and tradition.’

“We came from a people with art that goes back right to the 12th century and it wasn’t documented – Africa was this black, dark place no one wanted to come to, and if they did it surely wasn’t for the art,” she added.

“But the culture and tradition is so wide and so deep and intense, it makes you feel whole like a human being.”

The festival showcases performing arts such as singing, dancing and drumming, but the spirituality of Yoruba culture is what is closest to Jacqueline’s heart.

“It’s helped me to find out who I am, who I should be, and it gives you a sense of being to know you have a culture,” she says.

“You respect nature, other people and yourself, you find out everything happens for a reason and is not a mistake.

“Yorubas believe in spirits that can transform into anything, from animals to the air.

“We might be talking and a bird could be a few yards away, and that could be a spirit listening into our conversation – but in the West, it’s just a bird,” explains Jacqueline.

“Spirits to us are not superstition, they are real, they are on the bus, they are all over the place. The difference from us is they don’t have a body but we do.

“Society has made ‘superstition’ as a way of stopping people from wanting to be curious about the unknown. To us, the spirit world is the unknown.”

But there is also a darker side to the belief. For example a Channel 4 Unreported World documentary aired in April claimed that human traffickers are using black magic to coerce and entrap Nigerian women into prostitution in Italy.

Women are made to swear an oath of loyalty to traffickers in an elaborate ritual that compels them to pay back extortionate sums of money. If they ever break free or report their traffickers, they believe they will be cursed.

Jacqueline believes this is less about Juju itself – the use of amulets in “witchcraft” – than about corruption of the practice.

“The mind is the most powerful thing anyone has. If they can control it, then they can control you.

“People took that knowledge and started to use if for evil things. You can use it to make people numb, dumb, go into a trance.

“People who don’t understand it would think Juju is evil and people are trying to get at each other.

“But the basic principle about it is being aware of who you are, where you are and what you’re on this Earth to do, and the principle of being fair.”

Jacqueline spent eight years as confidant and tour manager to legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti before she moved to London aged 24.

She eventually qualified as a shipping lawyer, and in the meantime practised law at the Nigerian High Commission, working on criminal, fraud, deportation and child abduction cases.

She found it demoralising that many who came to her for help would end up being deported anyway.

Jacqueline travelled to Liverpool and Portsmouth putting ships under arrest, but sexism in the industry led her to set up as a freelance barrister in 2007.

Nowadays she’s concentrating on writing a book about her relationship with Fela, and she’s devoted to the vision of what her festival could become.

“I really want something for African people, to have that representation,” she says.

“We are here and we have such a beautiful culture and tradition and we shouldn’t just say: ‘Because we are out of Africa we should forget it.

“There is a saying: ‘You can take the sunshine with you anywhere you go,’ and if we are a people of sunshine, we can take the sunshine to England.”

The festival will be held at Clissold Park, Stoke Newington on Saturday July 23 from noon to 9pm.

Part of Jacqueline wanted to organise a Yoruba festival in memory of the legendary Fela Kuti, who has influenced her life very deeply.

She met the human rights activist and pioneer of Afrobeat music when she was just 17 and he had an entourage of nearly 30 wives.

She was invited to his Lagos home by a mutual friend, and remembers how you could smell the cannabis “a mile off”.

“I met this man who was very simple, very quiet,” says Jacqueline.

“From the first day we met he took this interest in me. I was this very young child who was always asking questions like, ‘Why are you always walking around in your pants?’

“I think I amused him with the questions I was always asking. Over time he felt he wanted to tell me so much.”

He introduced her to a world of art, culture, touring, women, sex and drugs.

“I learned about being liberal,” says Jacqueline.

“He had about 30 women in the house at one time and he slept with all of them.

‘Burden of information’

“From what he said to me, monogamy is a colonial way of thinking that man and women can remain faithful, and that’s not possible.

“I think I was the only woman he knew that he didn’t sleep with – not that he didn’t fancy me – but I knew if I had a relationship with him I would become like everyone else.”

Jacqueline spent much of the next eight years with him, and is now writing a book about her experience to release the “burden of information” she feels she is carrying.

A champion of the cause of the common man, Fela Kuti sang songs of emancipation, criticising government officials for milking Nigeria’s wealth for themselves while the rest of the country lived in poverty.

“This man had a lot of skirmishes with the government. He had a broken jaw he lived with from all the police raids and beatings,” says Jacqueline.

“He would say: “My jaw really aches but I’m singing tonight.’

“I thought I’d love to let people know he’s as human as any of us, but he’s still that showman.”

On his last tour of Europe Jacqueline was his guest, but got more than she had bargained for.

On the day of departure Fela asked her to supervise his 50-strong entourage and left her to get on with it.

‘Life is a journey’

She moved from Nigeria to settle in England in 1997, and six months later Fela died.

“We believe life is a journey and along the journey you will meet people in getting you to where you are going,” says Jacqueline.

“We have Afrobeats at our festival, its an aspect that reminds me of him – although no one can ever recreate Fela’s music like him.

“I’m very sure that if he was alive, he would have come.”

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