Welcome to our Women In History series, we will be sharing stories about women in the history of Nigeria
Susan Wenger, also known as Adunni Olorisa was an artist and a priestess, who became attracted to the African culture when she came to Nigeria.
She was known for encouraging Yorubas to embrace their culture which was going extinct because of the influence of the western world.
She led the task of protecting the sacred grove of Osun, a forest along the banks of the Osun River just outside Osogbo, and turned it into a sculpture garden filled with art which she created and other arts created by other artists.
Born to Christian Swiss-Austrian parents, Susan Wenger has always loved nature. As a child, she was so fond of trees and so, spent a great deal of time in the mountains and forests in her small town.
Susan Wenger studied art in Austria and was part of the famous Vienna art club. After World War II, she took her art to Italy and Switzerland where she had exhibitions.
In 1949, Susan went to Paris, and there, she met her first husband, Ulli Beier, a renowned German researcher and linguist, who was posted at the University of Ibadan to teach Phonetics and they got married in 1950.
After the couple got to Nigeria, they settled down at Ede in Osun state, while her husband worked as a lecturer, Susan continued as an artist.
While in Ede, Susan became friends with the Ajagemo, one of the very last priests of Obatala worship, and took great interest in all the rituals and activities even though she did not understand a single word of Yoruba at that time.
Susan and her husband moved to Osogbo but over time, they divorced. While her husband left for Europe, Susan remained in Osogbo where she continued in her training as a priestess.
The turning point for Susan came, when she was seriously ill with tuberculosis and there was no doctor to treat her. She was slowly dying from the disease until she was given herbal mixtures provided by Yoruba medicine men and in no time, she became well.
After Susan recovered, she decided to dedicate her life to the Yoruba orisa who saved her from death. And until she died, she never looked back.
Although, Susan was still training as a priestess, she continued her work as an artist.
While understanding the deepest mysteries of Yoruba traditional beliefs, Susan tried to interpret them through art, and she made countless murals and a series of sculptures and carvings.
Between 1952 and 1970, Susan made illustrations for and designed Yoruba books. She also wrote children books in Yoruba and English.
Furthermore, Susan ensured that the pristine rainforest was preserved. She stopped loggers and farmers who wanted to cut down the trees for other uses and destroy the environment in the process.
Susan also joined local artists to restore many shrines which were already falling into disuse as a result of lack of repairs.
In 1959, Susan married a local drummer, late Chief Ayansola Oniru Alarape, but divorced him later after he was maltreating her and remained single for the rest of her life.
Susan later adopted over 12 Yoruba kids and one of them is the well-known Yinka Davies-Okundaye.
Susan Wenger became an inspiration to artists and the center of the Osun Grove, especially when people congregate there every August for the annual Osun Osogbo festival.
As a result of her efforts in preserving the sacred forest, in 1965, Osun grove was declared a national monument and in 2005, the grove was recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as a world heritage site.
This made the annual Osun festival a very popular event, that many Africans in the Diaspora and other people from all parts of the world undertake pilgrimage to Osogbo for the Osun festival.
Susan Wenger died on the 12th of January, 2009, at the Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Hospital in Osogbo.
She had instructed her adopted children who were with her before she breathed her last that she should be buried the same day she died without being kept in the mortuary or any elaborate fanfare.
With no part of her body removed, Susan was buried in one of the sacred shrines in the forest grove that night by worshippers of Oro and Osun.