LOCATION: West Africa (primarily Nigeria; also Benin and Togo)
RELIGION: Ancestral religion, Islam, Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Beninese; Nigerians
The Yoruba are one of the largest and most important ethnic groups south of the Sahara desert. Their tradition of urban life is unique among African ethnic groups. The Yoruba rank among the leaders in economics, government, religion, and artistic achievement in West Africa. Within Nigeria, where they dominate the Western part of the country, the Yoruba are one of the three largest and most important ethnic groups. The Yoruba people are not a single group, but are a series of diverse people bound together by common language, dress, ritual, political system, mythology, and history.
There has been much speculation about the origins of the Yoruba people. Based on their beautifully cast brass sculptures from Ife, one opinion held that Yoruba culture had been introduced by Etruscans who reached West Africa by way of the “lost continent” of Atlantis. Others suggested that the Yoruba may have come from Egypt. Many educated Yoruba people accept this view, which is also supported by theories relating to similarities in the languages of the two people.
However, archeological evidence has not supported any of these claims. It is now recognized that Ife was the early center of an important glass-making industry and the home of native brass casting. Archeologists have also uncovered a town wall of about 8.8 km (5.5 mi) in circumference surrounding the city that was probably built between ad 950 and 1400. A later town wall of about 12.8 km (8 mi) in circumference from the middle of the 19th century was also discovered. This evidence seems to indicate that Ife was an important artistic and religious center by around ad 1000. As far as the origins of the Yoruba are concerned, all that archeology can point to is some stylistic similarities between pottery in Ife and in Northern Nigeria, dating to a period between 900 bc and ad 200. This indicates that they probably migrated southward from the savanna into the tropical forest area after that time.
The Yoruba are divided among over fifty kingdoms. Yoruba mythology holds that ultimately all Yoruba people descended from a hero called Odua or Oduduwa, and the Yoruba kings validate their right to rule by claiming direct descent from him through one of his sixteen sons. Today there are over fifty “kings” who claim to be descendants of the sons or grandsons of Odua and to have migrated directly from Ife. It is not possible to determine how many kingdoms there were before warring began between them in the last century, but they probably numbered over twenty. Yoruba country was torn by warfare for decades. One of the most damaging effects of the centuries-long warfare was the enslavement of many Yoruba people and their transport to the Americas. In 1893, the Governor of Lagos brought the Yoruba kingdoms in Nigeria under the Protectorate of Great Britain, and peace was achieved. Until 1960 Nigeria was a British colony and the Yoruba were British subjects. On 1 October 1960 Nigeria became an independent nation with the political structure of a federation of states.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Yoruba people live in West Africa, primarily in the country of Nigeria, but with some scattered groups in Benin and Togo. According to the 1963 census, out of a total Yoruba population of 5.3 million, 4.1 million lived in the five states of Oyo, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Ijebu, and Ondo. These states are primarily Yoruba, with the percentages of Yoruba in the population ranging from 89.2% for Ondo state to 97.7% in Ibadan State. These states have a combined area of 75,370 sq km (29,100 sq mi), giving an average population density of 58 per sq km (150 per sq mi), but ranging from a low of 31 per sq km (81 per sq mi) in Oyo state to a high of 141 per sq km (365 per sq mi) in Ibadan State.
Most of the other Yoruba are found in the Federal Territory, in Ilorin and Kabba Provinces in Northern Nigeria, in Benin, and in Togo. In Nigeria, the Itsekiri of Warri are a Yoruba-speaking offshoot who have been strongly influenced by Benin culture. Yoruba traders are also found in nearly all the major market towns of West Africa. Descendants of Yoruba slaves, some of whom can still speak the Yoruba language, are found in Sierra Leone where they are known as Aku, in Cuba where they are known as Lucumi, and in Brazil where they are known as Nago. During the four centuries of the slave trade when their territory was known as Slave Coast, uncounted numbers of Yoruba were carried to the Americas where their descendants preserved Yoruba traditions. In several parts of the Caribbean and South America, Yoruba religion has combined with Christianity, resulting in Yoruba deities being identified with Catholic saints.
The Yoruba homeland in West Africa stretches from a savanna region on the north to a region of tropical rain forests on the south. Lagos, the present federal capital of Nigeria, is located at the southern end of this area. It is this range of climate, together with the intensity of cultivation in the savanna area, that determines a very sharp division between regions and in the occupations and living situation of the Yoruba in the two areas.
The Yoruba language belongs to the Niger-Congo branch of the Congo-Kordofanian language family that includes most West African languages. While there are many dialects within Yoruba, Yoruba-speaking people can all understand each other.
Yoruba is a tonal language; the same combination of vowels and consonants has different meanings depending on the pitch of the vowels. For example, the same word, aro, can mean cymbal, indigo dye, lamentation, and granary, depending on intonation. Pele o is “Hello;” Bawo ni? is “How are you?;” and, Dada ni is “Fine, thank you.”
The most important myths of the Yoruba are related to their origins. Yoruba believe that, not only did they originate at the city of Ife, but the earth and the first human beings were created there as well. According to this myth, the deities originally lived in the sky, below which there was only primeval water. Olorun, the Sky God, gave to Orishala, the God of Whiteness, a chain, a bit of earth in a snail shell, and a five-toed chicken, and told him to go down and create the earth. However, as he approached the gate of heaven, he saw some deities having a party and he stopped to greet them. They offered him palm wine, and he drank too much and fell asleep, drunk. Odua, his younger brother, had overheard Olorun's instructions, and when he saw Orishala sleeping, he took the materials and went to the edge of heaven, accompanied by Chameleon. He let down the chain, and they climbed down it. Odua threw the piece of earth on the water and placed the five-toed chicken upon it. The chicken began to scratch the earth, spreading it in all directions, and as far as the ends of the earth. After Chameleon had tested the firmness of the earth, Odua stepped on it at Idio where he made his home and where his sacred grove in Ife is located today.
When Orishala awoke and found that the work had been completed, he put a taboo on wine that his worshippers observe today. He came down to earth and claimed it as his own. He insisted that he was the owner of the earth because he had made it. The two brothers began to fight, and the other deities who followed them to earth took sides with them. When Olorun heard of the fighting, he called Orishala and Odua to appear before him and told them to stop fighting. To Odua, the Creator of the Earth, he gave the right to own the earth and rule over it. To Orishala he gave a special title and the power to mold human bodies; he thus became the Creator of Mankind.
Yoruba mythology goes on to explain that when Odua grew old he became blind. He sent each of his sixteen sons in turn to the ocean for salt water that had been prescribed as a remedy. Each returned unsuccessfully, bringing only fresh water, until Obokun, the youngest finally succeeded. Odua washed his eyes in the salt water and could see again. In gratitude, he gave Obokun a sword. Obokun took it and cut some of the beaded fringes from Odua's crown; because of this, he was not permitted to wear a crown to cover his face, as the other Yoruba kings do. Obokun went to the city of Ilesha where he became king, and the other sons founded kingdoms of their own.
In the last census the number of Yoruba who said that they adhere to their ancestral religion, rather than being Christians or Muslims, varied from 20% of the population in Oyo to only 6% in Ijebu. However, most people continue to participate in the annual festivals of their town, though Muslims are probably somewhat more rigid than Christians in the non-observance of certain rites. The rest are divided about evenly between Muslims and Christians.
Yoruba traditional religion holds that there are 401 deities. Some are worshipped throughout Yoruba land and have their counterparts among neighboring peoples; some are fairly widely known; and some are only of local significance. Except for Olorun, the deities are believed to have lived on earth, but instead of dying they became gods. The worshipers of a deity are referred to as his “children.” An individual usually worships the deity of his father and some of his mother. Many deities are identified with a particular clan. After marriage, women return home for the annual festival of their own deity but they assist in the performance of the annual festival of their husband's deity. The priests of Yoruba cults usually hold no political office; they do not sit among the chiefs. They are usually men of little wealth; their prestige in the community is often low, but their sacred powers are feared.
There are three gods who are available to all. Olorun is the high god, the Creator, but no shrines exist to him, and there is no organized priesthood. He is invoked in blessings or in thanks, and one may call on him with prayers or by pouring water on kola nuts on the ground. Eshu is the youngest and cleverest of the deities and is the divine messenger who delivers sacrifices prescribed by the diviners to Olorun, after these are placed at his shrine. Regardless of what deity they worship, everyone prays frequently to Eshu. Ifa is the God of Divination and a close friend of Eshu. He is often spoken of as a scribe or clerk and is described as a learned man or scholar. Olorun gave him the power to speak for the gods and communicate with human beings through divination. Most importantly, he is the one who transmits and interprets the wishes of Olorun to mankind and who prescribes the sacrifices that Eshu carries to him. Whatever personal deities they may worship, all believers in the Yoruba religion turn to Ifa in time of trouble.
Other gods include Odua, the creator of the earth; Orishala, the god of whiteness; Ogun, the god of iron; Oranmiyan, the son of Ogun and Odua; Shango, the god of thunder; Shopona, the god of smallpox; and a number of river gods and goddesses. Cults to these deities are maintained by families or clans whose members participate in the annual festivals.
In addition to local town festivals (usually dedicated to individual deities), Yoruba may also celebrate the following holidays, depending on whether they are Christians or Muslims: (Muslim holidays vary according to the lunar calendar): New Year's Day, January; Idul Adha (“Feast of Sacrifice”) June or July;
Easter (March or April); Maulid an-Nabi (“Muhammad's birthday”) September or October; Ramadan (March–April), followed by a 3 day feast; Nigerian Independence Day (October); Idul Fitr (March–April); Christmas (December).
RITES OF PASSAGE
A newborn infant is sprinkled with water to make it cry. No word may be spoken until the infant cries, in the belief that silence will prevent the infant from becoming impotent or barren. No one younger than the mother should be present. The infant then is taken to the back yard where the umbilical cord is bound tightly with thread and then cut, using either a knife from the midrib of a leaf of the bamboo palm, or a piece of glass. The placenta is buried in the back yard. On the burial spot, the child is bathed with a loofah sponge and rubbed with palm oil. The child is held by the feet and given three shakes to make it strong and brave. After a specified number of days, a naming ceremony is held and attended by relatives who bring gifts of small amounts of money. Circumcision (boys) and clitoridectomy (girls) are usually performed in the first month and scarification of the face (the cutting of the facial marks) follows about two months later. Christians and Muslims are giving up scarification, but circumcision and clitoridectomy is still done.
Many children are given special names according to the circumstances of their birth. For example, the first-born twin, who is considered younger because he was sent ahead by the other, is called Taiwo, meaning that he came to inspect the world. The second-born or senior twin is called Kehinde, meaning that he arrived afterwards. There are special names for the first, second, third, and fourth children born after twins, for children born with the umbilical cord around their neck, for children born in an unruptured caul (membrane surrounding the fetus), for children born face down, for children born with six fingers, and for other circumstances of birth. Many Yoruba names begin with the name of the deity that the individual worships, for example, Fagbemi means “Ifa helps me.”
In the past, men past adolescence were divided into a system of age-graded associations. These groups were formed at three-year intervals and continued until the death of all their members. Membership was automatic and universal. The age grades designated a young man's public duties in the town. The youngest grade, 0–9 years, did no work. The next grade weeded the roads, and the two highest grades provided the warriors. At the age of 45, a man became an elder and was exempt from manual public work. This system is now becoming obsolete, as all children attend school.
Girls were generally engaged before puberty in former times, often by age five. This is no longer the practice, although a man still must negotiate through an intermediary with the girl's father (usually before the girl reaches puberty) to arrange a marriage and cannot approach either the girl or her parents directly to propose marriage. If the parents approve of the young man, they consult a diviner. If he is approved by the diviner, the suitor is told to visit the family and to bring the first installment of the bridewealth (payment to the bride's family) to seal the engagement. This process is known as “becoming in-laws.” The second installment, known as “love money” can be given at any time before the third year after puberty when the girl becomes marriageable. The final installment is made just before marriage and is known as “wife money.” When the girl reaches marriageable age her family notifies her suitor that it is time for her to have her body decorated with scarified designs. The groom then sends six calabashes (gourd-like fruit, hollowed out and used as a carrier) of water, six bundles of firewood, and the necessary leaves, oils, and other materials. Weddings are frequently performed in the season after the heavy rains. The night begins at the bride's house after dark with a feast to which the groom also contributes yams. The bride then is taken to the groom's house by women from his house after she has been blessed by her mother and her father. In the groom's house she is taken to the main chamber where she is washed from foot to knee with an infusion of leaves meant to bring her many children. For a period of 84 days, the bride then makes ritual visits to her parents' home, returning to her husband's compound after nightfall. For eight days, starting with the wedding night she spends two nights and two days each in her husband's and in her parents' compounds alternately, returning on the ninth day to make a sacrifice to the God of Divination in her husband's home.
Burials are performed by the adult men of the clan of the deceased, but those who can trace actual relationship to the deceased, including a man's brothers and sons, do not join them. The men divide themselves into two groups: one digging the grave and the other bathing the corpse. The body is laid out in the house and laid on fine cloths placed on a bed and covered with still finer cloth. Relatives and friends are notified of the death as soon as possible and they come to console the immediate family and to pay their respects to the departed. The grave is dug in the floor of the room where the deceased lived. Interment in the past was delayed as many as eight days, during which time there was feasting. Now it follows as soon as the grave has been dug. After the burial there is a period of feasting, lasting as long as eight or ten nights if the children can afford it. These funeral ceremonies may be postponed up to a year if the children do not have the resources to do it at once. Many of the rituals associated with burial are intended to insure that the deceased will be reborn again.
Kinship is the most important relationship for the Yoruba. This is where an individual gets his identity and where his primary loyalties lie. Not all ties are based on kinship, however. Friendship may or may not cut across kinship lines. A best friend is referred to as “friend not-see-not-sleep,” meaning one does not go to sleep without having seen his best friend. Th rough experience one learns whose advice he can rely upon and whom he can trust not to reveal confidences. In times of trouble Yoruba turn to the best friend even before turning to the mother. The Yoruba shares his last wishes with the best friend—what is to be done at his burial, how he wishes his property to be divided—and the best friend shares this information with his family at his death.
The second institution that is not based on kinship is the club or association that may grow out of childhood associations. When his clan is performing a religious festival, or when he is sacrificing to his ancestral guardian soul, a child may invite his playmates and their friends to come to eat with him; and, he may be invited by them in return. If this continues, they choose a name for the club and invite an elder man and an elder woman to serve as advisors. The members of clubs will consequently be more or less the same age. A man can invite the members of his club to his feast when he is performing a festival and to accompany him as he travels around town accompanied by a drummer on that day. A man's social position is judged by the number of his followers on such occasions. Clubs hold monthly meetings, with the members serving as hosts in turn.
The Yoruba people have lived in towns as long as their history has been recorded. These towns consist of dense aggregates of buildings housing 30 persons to the hectare (75 persons to the acre) in the built-up areas. The traditional compounds in these aggregates are vast structures of rectangular courtyards, each with a single entrance. Around each courtyard is an open or a semi-enclosed porch where the women sit, weave, and cook; behind this are the rooms of each adult. Today, the old compounds are rapidly being replaced by modern bungalows made of cement blocks with corrugated iron roofs.
Most Yoruba towns, even small ones, have adequate basic services, including electricity, running water, and paved roads. The major Yoruba cities, such as Ibadan and Abeokuta, have modern central areas that include banks, government buildings, churches, and hospitals. There is public transportation connecting all settlements, mostly by mini-buses and taxis. The more affluent people own cars.
Traditional medicine continues to play an important role in the health care of people, alongside modern Western health services. Among the Yoruba both practices flourish. Since Nigeria became independent, the general health of the population has improved with the expansion of the public health network. In the late 1980s, an increase in vaccination against major childhood diseases was carried out under the government's health policy. Nevertheless, many problems remain, and chronic diseases, such as malaria and guinea worm, still resist efforts at eradication.
Whether urban or rural, the Yoruba live in large residential groups, called compounds. The members of the compounds consist of patrilineally related men and their wives and children. After marriage, a bride comes to live in one of the many rooms in the compound of the groom's father. Every Yoruba is born into a patrilineal clan whose members are descended from a remote common ancestor. An individual accepts all members of his own clan as blood relatives, even if he does not know in what way they are actually related. Both sons and daughters are born into the clan of their father.
Clan members are spoken of as “children of the house” with males distinguished as “sons of the house” from the females or “daughters of the house.” The females live in the compound of their birth until they marry, when they go to live with their husbands. The males constitute the nucleus of the compound, being born, married, and buried in it. The wives of the male clan members are known as “the wives of the house.” Except for their own children, they are not related by blood to the rest of the compound members.
The clan and the sub-clan are each headed by its eldest male member, known as the Bale or “father of the house,” a term that also refers to a husband as the head of his own family. No one except a male member of the clan can hold this position, and it follows according to strict seniority. The Bale serves as the principal judge of the compound, presiding when disputes are brought before him. A husband is responsible for settling quarrels within his own family; but if he is unsuccessful or if an argument involves members of two different families within the compound, it is referred to the Bale. The Bale is also responsible for assigning living quarters within the compound, administering clan farmlands assigned to the compound, sacrificing to the founder whose name the compound bears, and making medicines and atonements to keep its inhabitants in good health and at peace.
The hierarchy within the clan, based on seniority, runs from the eldest Bale of its several compounds down to the youngest child, and is very important in regulating conduct between the members. Each person is “elder” to all others born or married into the clan after him. The reciprocal obligations involve authority on the one hand, and deference and respect on the other. Males are seated and served according to their relative seniority, and elders can take larger and choicer portions of what is served.
In terms of seniority or age, the male members of the compound are divided into three groups: the elders, the adult males who are economically independent, and the young men and boys who are still economically dependent on their fathers. The elders, the adult males, and wives of the compound hold separate monthly or bimonthly meetings to discuss the affairs of the compound, the allocation of clan farm land, and the collection of taxes.
The clan and sub-clan completely overshadow the immediate family in importance. The immediate family, consisting of a man, his wives, and their children is of less significance and is known only by a descriptive name referring to the dwelling that it occupies, “house that of mine,” to distinguish it from the compound.
The sub-family, consisting of a wife and her children within the polygynous family (husband with two or more wives), is an important unit of everyday life. They have a room in the husband's house to themselves, and they share possessions in common. Each mother cooks for her own children only, and ties of close affection bind a mother and her children. A man is expected to treat each wife equally and not according to the number of her children, but the mothers compete to gain additional favors for their own children. The father is distant and authoritarian, often seeing little of his children. When they are young, children of co-wives play together on the best terms, but as they grow older and property rights become important, they usually grow apart because of quarrels over possessions. When the father dies, his personal property is divided into approximately equal shares according to the number of children each wife has. It is the children, not the wives, who inherit, and the eldest son of each wife takes one share in the name of all the children of his mother. He may keep and use this inheritance as he sees fit, but he is held responsible for the economic welfare of the others.
Western-style dress is the style of clothing worn in urban areas. Traditional clothing, which is still worn on important occasions and in rural areas, is very colorful and elaborate. Women wear a head tie made of a rectangular piece of cloth tied about the head in a number of distinctive ways. Women carry babies or young children on their backs by tying another rectangular cloth around their waists. A third such cloth may be worn over the shoulder as a shawl, on top of a loose-fitting, short-sleeved blouse. A larger rectangular cloth serves as a wrap-around skirt.
Men wear tailored cloth hats, gowns, and trousers of several different patterns. A popular form of gown is shaped like a poncho; it reaches to the fingertips, but is worn folded back on the shoulders. Trousers are usually very loose and baggy. All the cloth from which traditional clothing is made is hand woven and often decorated with elaborate embroidery.
Facial and body scarification (making small, superficial incisions or punctures in the skin) are both symbols of clan affiliation and a means of beautification. Hair styles, referred to as hairdress, are important forms of decoration for women. The most common hairstyles are composed of parallel, tightly braided stripes running from the forehead to the back of the head. From there, they are wound in a row of tiny queues, from the back of the head to the forehead, from the top of the head downward and ending in a circle of tiny queues on the top of the head where they form a small topknot.
The Yoruba diet consists of starchy tubers, grains, and plan-tains, supplemented by vegetable oils, wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables, meat, and fish. Although yams are the staple food, they are both expensive and there is prestige associated with serving them. Therefore, they are reserved for social occasions. The daily family diet relies on cassava, taro, maize, beans, and plantains. One of the most popular foods is foo-foo, similar to a dumpling, but made of cassava. Rice is now widely grown all over Nigeria, and the Yoruba use it for ceremonial or important meals. In the past, meat was also reserved for ceremonies and special occasions. The predominance of starch in the diet is indicated by the fact that of 56 food recipes recorded in Ife, 47 describe different ways of preparing yams, maize, plantains, cassava, and taro. Six are stews, which may or may not contain meat or fish; they are made of vegetable oil and are highly seasoned with salt and chili pepper. Of the remaining three, two are based on melon seeds and one is simply toasted peanuts.
The following recipes are very popular and are usually served together:
White yams, preferably round and fat in shape with long, thorn-like hairs
- Scrub yams, peel, and cut into chunks or slices. Place in a pot with water to cover. Cover and cook until the yams can be pierced easily with a fork.
- Pound the yams in a mortar, one piece at a time, until it forms a mass that pulls away from the sides of the mortar and is elastic to the touch. (This cannot be done with electric mixers, because the pounded yams will be very stiff.)
Pounded yam is served with soups and stews of many types at main meals.
Variation: Boil some ripe plantain with the yam and pound it with the yam.
Chicken and Okra Soup
1 medium chicken
1 small onion, chopped
18 large okra
3 grams (1 teaspoon) dry ground red pepper
40 grams (1.4 ounces) dry crayfish, ground
2 medium fresh tomatoes
6 grams (2 teaspoons) tomato paste Pinch of salt
1.5 grams (½ teaspoon) potash
- Clean and cut the chicken into pieces, breaking the bones. Place in a pot with salt and pepper, cover with water and boil until tender. Drain, reserving the broth.
- Grate the okra coarsely. Combine with remaining ingredients and boil for 5 minutes. Add the chicken to the okra mixture and continue to cook for 5 minutes more. Serve with the pounded yam.
When Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960, its new parliamentary government set a priority on education, and universal primary education soon became the norm in southern Nigeria where the Yoruba live. Secondary school (high school) education also became widespread. The Yoruba were much involved in these efforts since education had a long tradition among them. The first university in Nigeria—established in 1947–48 and originally called University College, Ibadan—was located in a Yoruba city. (After independence, it was renamed the University of Ibadan.) The majority of students at Ibadan are Yoruba.
As a consequence of the priority on education, the literacy rate among people under 30 is high, even though the older generations may still be illiterate.
The Yoruba cultural heritage includes verbal arts, such as praise names, praise poems, tongue twisters, hundreds of prose narratives and riddles, and thousands of proverbs. Whether the principal characters are humans or animals, the folktales all have a moral or lesson. Myths and legends impart information that is believed to be true about Yoruba heritage.
An evening session of telling folktales is usually preceded by a riddling contest among the children. Riddles sharpen the wits and train the memory of children. Adults share proverbs that express Yoruba morals, ethics, and social approval and disapproval.
There are songs of both ridicule and praise, as well as lullabies, religious songs, war songs, and work songs. These usually follow a “call and response” pattern between a leader and chorus. Rhythm is provided by drums, iron gongs, cymbals, rattles, and hand clapping. Other instruments include long brass trumpets, ivory trumpets, whistles, stringed instruments, and metallophones. Perhaps the most interesting musical instrument is the “talking drum.”
Traditional Yoruba economy was based on hoe farming, craft specialization, and trade. About 75% of the Yoruba men are farmers, producing food crops for their domestic needs. Farming is considered men's work, and men only do clearing or hoeing fields. Wives can help their husbands with planting yams or harvesting corn, beans, or cotton. Wives also help at the market selling farm produce. A common practice was for several men to have a labor exchange, where they work together an equal number of days or hoeing the same number of heaps on each farmer's land. Alternatively, a man might invite his relatives, his friends, or the members of his club to a working bee during busy periods. Wealthier farmers could hire laborers.
Since the 1920s cocoa has been an important cash crop in the Yoruba economy. This caused a shift in emphasis to wage labor, doing away with much of the traditional forms of exchange labor.
The Yoruba enjoy trading and huge markets with over a thousand sellers are common. In addition, Yoruba long distance traders can be found as far away as Accra in Ghana and Bamako in Mali. Trade in foodstuffs and in cloth is confined to women; meat selling and produce buying is the province of men.
A farmer can become prosperous by working hard, by enjoying good health and by being blessed with many sons. Today only a few men have enough capital to establish large cocoa farms worked by hired labor. But, by trading an astute man can become very rich. In the past there were noted traders; today the produce buyers, the building contractors and the truck owners are a town's wealthiest men, enjoying the highest prestige. In the past this wealth was often spent on luxuries—houses, clothing, and the acquisition of wives. Today modern houses and cars are in vogue and every man hopes to send his children, especially his sons, to be educated at a university. The new, educated generation is moving away from farming and its members are looking for white collar jobs.
See the following section entitled “Entertainment and Recreation.”
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In addition to rituals, dances, and traditional music, modern forms of entertainment include television, going to the movies, and discos. Many urban households own television sets. The more religious households prohibit family members, especially women, from going to see films. Among urban teenagers, American youth culture is popular. Most young people listen to rap and rock music.
FOLK ARTS, CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
The Yoruba engage in both visual and verbal art forms. Visual arts include weaving, embroidering, pottery making, wood-carving, leather and bead working, and metalworking. The Yoruba are considered among the most prolific of the art-producing people of Africa.
Both men and women weave, using different types of looms. Women weave on a vertical “mat loom,” producing a cloth about 60 cm (2 ft) wide and 213 cm (7 ft) long. Men weave on the horizontal narrow-band treadle loom that produces a strip of cloth only 3 to 4 in (7.5 to 10 cm) wide, but as long as may be needed. The long strips are cut to the desired length and sewn together to make clothing. Patterns are named often after the clubs that ordered them. Cloth is woven from wild silk and from locally grown cotton.
Men also do embroidery, particularly on large gowns worn by men and on men's caps. Men are also the tailors and dressmakers. Floor mats, mat bags for storing clothing, baskets, and strainers are also made by the men.
Women are the potters. In addition to palm oil lamps, they make over twenty kinds of pots and dishes for cooking, eating, and carrying and storing liquids. Most everyday pottery is brown or black without decoration. Pottery used for rituals is decorated with red, white, or blue designs. Gourds or cala-bashes (a gourd-like fruit) are also used for drinking, serving food, and for carrying palm wine sacrifices and goods to sell in the market. Some are also used as containers for the ingredients of medicines. Some calabashes are decorated with carved designs.
Woodcarving accounts for the greatest variety of decorated and sculptural forms. The woodcarvers, all of whom are men, carve “art,” that is, both sculpture and geometrical designs. Those who carve masks and figurines are distinguished from those who simply carve wood into mortars, pestles, and utilitarian bowls. Some Yoruba woodcarvers also work in bone, ivory, and stone.
Blacksmiths work both in iron and brass to create utilitarian and decorative objects. The brass Ife heads of the period before contact with outsiders are considered among the finest art works of the world.
There are vast differences in wealth among Yoruba social classes. Differences in income and lifestyle are related to the person's occupation. In some rural areas, farmers barely manage to feed their families. Many traditional urban occupations, such as water carriers, hawkers, and sweepers, also do not provide adequate wages to support a family. Lower-skilled workers are employed in house construction and crafts, or as clerks, all at very low incomes. The oil boom and provisions of schooling in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the growth of a sizable middle class, most of whom adopted a Western lifestyle. The social elites include traditional chiefs and wealthy business and government leaders. The elite lifestyle is characterized by conspicuous consumption of material goods.
Nigeria is party to several international human rights treaties, but the current government's human rights record is poor. Military rule deprives many citizens of their rights through detention without trial, physical assault, torture, and harassment. An active human rights group, the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), was founded by a group of lawyers led by Olisa Agbakobe, a Yoruba. It is one of several organizations critical of the government's violations of civil rights.
The crime rate in Nigeria is high, particularly in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, and other urban areas. More than half the offenses are property crimes. Worsening economic conditions and an infective police and military heightened the incidence of crime in the 1980s
Drug-related crime has emerged as a major problem, and young people are using both marijuana and cocaine in increasing numbers.
Gender relations among the Yoruba are complex. A lot of gender constructs are portrayed in their myths, which form both their social and religious practices. Some of the Yoruba gods, like Osun, were females and there were female priestesses too, thus illustrating the pivotal role that women played in Yoruba religious and spiritual matters.
As in many other societies, there were specific expectations for females and males. Such expectations were determined by the people's living experiences. For example, women were expected to be peaceful and fruitful; thus, female principles were generally regarded as symbols of coolness, whereas male principles were construed as representing toughness and virility. Consequently, men were portrayed as rough and violent while women were portrayed as peaceful. Hence, some years that are difficult are called “Male Years” (ako odun) while those that are fruitful and peaceful are referred to as “Female Years” (abo odun). In Yoruba culture, a woman who acts like a man is ridiculed and so is a man who behaves like a woman.
The people's social expectations as recorded in wise sayings and proverbs further portray social expectations. For example the Yoruba proverb Ogbo-ogbon lagbalagba-a finsa fun eranla (It is with dissembling that a venerable man flees from a wild beast). This proverb encourages men to confront danger with bravery and not to run away. Such would be the social expectation.
In Yoruba culture, the gender constructs stress complementary relations between women and women. Thus, they do not necessarily translate to issues of oppression and domination of women by men. This complementary nature of Yoruba gender relations is deeply ingrained in the socio-religious domains and the either gender is vital for a smooth coexistence and harmonious living experience in the society. In fact neither gender fully dominates a particular domain, be it private or public. All the same, either gender can enjoy prominence in a specific area like religious rituals, while the other may be prominent in settling disputes and reconciliation. For example, while women take care of the children and are in charge of the daily running of the homes, men are the providers of resources, such as yams, and defenders of the community against any imminent attacks. Thus, both females and males manifest cooperation in the running of the affairs of the community.
Amina Mama, “Women's Studies and Studies of Women in Africa during the 1990s,” Feminist Knowledge: Review Essays, GWS Africa.
Bascom, William. The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
Diedre Badejo and Osun Seegesi. The Elegant Deity of Wealth, Power, and Femininity. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1996.
Kokole, Omari H. ed. The Global African: A Portrait of Ali A. Mazrui. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998.
Lloyd, P. C. “The Yoruba of Nigeria.” In Peoples of Africa, edited by James L. Gibbs, Jr. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965.
Olajubu, Oyeronke. “Seeing Through a Woman's eye: Yoruba Traditions and Gender Relations.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Indiana University Press, 2004.
Oyeronke Oyewumi. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Peel, J. D. Y. “Gender in Yoruba Religious Change,” Journal of Religion in Africa 32, 2002, pp. 136–66.
———. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).
Turner, James. “Universal Education and Nation-Building in Africa.” Journal of Black Studies 2, no. l: 3–27.
Warne, R. “Gender,” in Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon London: Cossell, 2000, pp. 140–54.
—revised by M. Njoroge
The 22 million Yoruba who live in southwestern Nigeria are one of the four major sociolinguistic groups of contemporary Nigeria. The others are the Igbo to the east, and the Hausa and Fulani to the north. Subgroups of the Yoruba in Nigeria include the Awori, the Ijesha, the Oyo, the Ife, the Egba, the Egbado, the Ketu, the Ijebu, the Ondo, the Ekiti, the Yagba, and the Igbomina. These subgroups have been described as belonging to a distinct cultural category because of such binding factors as a generally intelligible language, myth of common origin, and basically similar political structures. Besides the Yoruba in Nigeria, subgroups of Yoruba descent exist in other areas of the world as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and the artificially drawn international boundaries. In French Dahomey, now known as The Republic of Benin, the Yoruba are known as the Nago. In Cuba, they are known as the Lukumi. In Sierra Leone, they are known as the Aku, and in Surinam as Yoruba (Warner-Lewis 1996). In Brazil, the Yoruba culture influenced a religion known as Candomble (Murphy 1994; Voeks. 1997). In North America, particularly in Miami, Florida, Yorubainfluenced syncretistic religion is known as Santeria (Gonzalez-Wippler 1998).
Yoruba Culture and the Meaning of Marriage
Yoruba culture is not static. At the same time, every generation tries to preserve aspects of the indigenous tradition. This effort is counterbalanced by the pragmatic desire of the Yoruba to appropriate change in the garb of tradition. The dialectical relationship between the unchanging aspects of Yoruba culture and the dynamics of change are fueled by two sources of human interaction. The first source of change pertains to the new conflicts in human interaction that cannot be explained by Yoruba tradition. The second is the permanent effect of contact with Islam and the West, expressed in such institutions as law, marriage, religion, education, and public health services. Tola Olu Pearce has drawn attention to the importance of situating the present resistance to women's efforts to participate in the democratic process in Africa in the context of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial times if it is to be fully understood. As she noted, "What is of theoretical import is the fact that elements of all three historical periods interact in the present" (2000). For example, Yoruba marriage forms have been influenced by Christian and Muslim marriage practices in all the three phases even as the steps to Yoruba marriage project a decidedly traditional outer form. In marriages in contemporary Yoruba society, the modernized Yoruba cling tenaciously to this outer form as a proof of loyalty to the original culture. Traditional Yoruba courtship and marriage must be understood in the context of the impact of the precolonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods.
The family is the most sacred and significant institution to the Yoruba, who are child-centered, ruled by the elderly, and controlled by adults. The family is an effective unit of political control, religious affiliation, resource allocation, and assurance of safety. It is also the most effective agent of socialization. The family teaches the first lessons in discipline, personal gratitude, and affection. The family is where young people are exposed to their first preferences and prejudices. In the family, the lessons in honor and shame are learned, just as are the first lessons in dissembling to avoid the truth that may injure the well-being of the community. More poignantly, it is in and through the copious lessons in religious symbolism learned in the family that one comes to understand the cyclical and connected way of life in the here and now, the future, and the hereafter. Many Yoruba proverbs reiterate the view that the dead gave birth to the living, and the living ought to give birth to and nurture the children who represent the future.
The Yoruba further cloak these sentiments in the garb of religious obligation by insisting on a notion of afterlife whose reward is the opportunity for those elders who died well or properly to come and visit their progeny on earth. They attach their soul to the two other souls of the child to be born (Bascom 1956). Eleda, the first soul, is every individual's share in divine essence. The ori is that which is unique, or that which distinguishes one from any other person. In and through the child that is born, the dead are reincarnated to temporarily be with and bless the living. The sociological significance of this notion of birth and rebirth lies in its usefulness as a social welfare policy (Zeitlin; Megawangi; Kramer; Colleta; Babatunde; and Garman 1995). It ensures that children are wanted, nurtured, and brought up to be fine examples of what the Yoruba call Omoluwabi—the well-bred child. If a parent believes a son or daughter is a reincarnation of the parent's mother or father, the parent will not abandon the child. Seen in this context, marriage for the Yoruba man or woman is a necessity. As Nathaniel Fadipe noted:
For a man or a woman who has reached the age of marriage to remain single is against the mores of the Yoruba. Men get married even when they are sexually impotent in order to save either their faces or the faces of their immediate relatives, as well as to get one to look after their domestic establishment. There are a few cases of confirmed bachelors; men, who have reached middle age without getting married even though they are in position to do so. But they are a product of modern times with its individualism, and are most invariably Christians. (1970, p. 65)
Ideally, marriage should establish the foundation of the family. When it does, marriage is a union not only of the two spouses, but the two extended families to which they belong. Marriage itself is the proof that both spouses are good products and ambassadors of their families. By successfully going through the demanding steps to the Yoruba marriage, the spouses are a good reflection on the quality of character of their families. They have shown restraint as people who are well brought up, focused, enduring, reliable, disciplined, and people who are able to defer gratification until they are ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. As the Yoruba say, "It is easy to get married; what is difficult is to provide daily food for the family" (Ati gbeyawo, kekere; owo obe lo soro). In other words, the ability to satisfy the hierarchy of human needs was critical to the Yoruba evaluation of the spouses' readiness to be united in marriage. They ought to be able to provide food and shelter and safety. They ought to have the level of commitment and patience needed to inculcate a sense of belonging and self-esteem in their children. The test of the level to which one has internalized a sense of belonging and self-esteem is manifest in the desire to excel and find self-fulfillment in the service of the family. To ensure that the spouses have the requisite level of the skills that will enable their family to find its own balance, an elaborate system of calibrated steps and activities tests the endurance of the spouses. These steps reiterate the fact that the selection of the spouse is a communal affair that involves several symbolic steps (Babatunde 1992).
Steps That Lead to Marriage
Six important steps lead to the traditional Yoruba marriage:
- The time for seeking a potential spouse (Igba ifojusode);
- The approval of the oracle-divinity (Ifa f'ore);
- The release of the voice of the young woman (Isihun);
- The request for the young woman's hand in marriage (Itoro);
- The creation of the affinal bond (Idana); and
- The transfer of the wife to the husband's lineage (Igbeyawo).
When the young adult male is between twenty three and twenty-eight years of age and the female is between eighteen and twenty-five, they are both expected to be identifying potential spouses. At this time, the male is expected to have acquired skills that will allow him to provide for his family. The Yoruba socialization ensures that the daughter learns, from the age of seven, to serve as a little mother and child-caregiver to her younger siblings. By the time she is preparing for marriage, the Yoruba female would have learned some of the preliminary skills she will need to be a wife and mother from watching her mother and other women in her family.
Because Yoruba society in male-oriented, it is structured in favor of men taking initiative in the steps that lead to marriage. Thus, it is the man who formalizes his desire to proceed to the next level of courtship by visiting the house of the spouse-to-be. It is the man who pays his prospective to Isihun—payment to release the voice of the female so that the couple can talk with one another (eesee Ishihun). It is the suitor's male relations who take the initiative to institutionalize the marriage by first going to ask for the hand of the spouse. The suitor's male relations plan for the ceremony that creates affinal bond between the two families. Finally, the spouse is transferred from one group of patrilineal kin to another.
In traditional Yoruba society, the forum for meeting the potential spouse is the evening marketplace, Oja ale. During this period of seeking a spouse, it is a cultural obligation for mothers of young female adults to find a reason for them to go to the market. Often, among the highly entrepreneurial Yoruba, some commodity is found for the female to sell in the evening marketplace. The female continues to go to the evening market until a serious prospect is identified. The seriousness of the prospective spouse is determined, when after many meetings in the evening market, the young man offers to go and visit the young female in her parent's home. Among the Yoruba, avoidance is part of the etiquette regulating one's interaction with one's affinal relatives. The determination to visit the house of one's potential spouse is a final proof of readiness to engage in a serious relationship. However, before the suitor takes this important step, he should inform his father about his intentions. The father of the suitor then informs the eldest male member of the extended family, Idile, who is known as the elderly father (Baba agba).
The suitor's father communicates the message to the eldest member of the lineage in symbolic language, "Elderly father, your son has seen a beautiful flower that he thinks he wants to pluck" (Omo yin ti ri ododo elewa ti o feja). The elderly relative then replies, "Can our family members pluck a flower from that family tree?" (Nje awon ebi wa leja ododo lati iru igi bee). The father of the suitor answers that from inquiries already made, members of their extended family can pluck flowers from the said tree. Then the elderly father gives his blessing by appointing a wife of the family to serve as the go-between (Alarena).
The choice of a very respected wife as the go-between has complex sociological implications. As an affinal member of the lineage, she has the immunity of an outsider with a proven record of excellent service as a wife and a role model for new wives of members of the lineage. The Yoruba, who are very secretive and status-conscious, would find it offensive for a family member of the husband to take on this sensitive job of finding background information about the family history of the prospective wife. Because the go-between is an outsider acting on behalf of the male descendants of family, the culture accords her the immunity to carry out her assigned duty as a neutral party. Yet the main condition for her selection is her intense loyalty to the extended family into which she married. The office of the go-between is also a mechanism for the smooth integration of the wife-to-be into her family of marriage. If things work out, the new wife is not completely alone in her new family. She has an ally in the go-between.
The go-between tries to discover information that will assist the elders of the suitor's family in deciding whether the spouse would be a good companion for their son and a good resource in the extended family. If the go-between finds out that members of the spouse's family are lazy, that their womenfolk are stubborn and incorrigible in their marital homes, or if men in the extended family of the spouse are notorious debtors or have been known to have debilitating diseases, this information will be passed on to the elders, who will subsequently bring pressure to bear on their son to discontinue the relationship. If inquiries reveal that the spouse's family members have a reputation for hard work, respect for elders, a great sense of nurture and motivation to induce their children to excel, every effort will be made to move the courtship to the next step in the process. The male elders direct the father of the suitor to find out from the oracle the future prospects of the union. The Yoruba are pragmatic. They want to know ahead of time whether the endeavor is worth the effort. The oracle is an instrumental use of symbolic inquiry to fathom the profitability of a future enterprise.
Select male elders of the suitor's lineage would consult the oracle divinity (Orunmila) who serves as the refraction of the supreme being, Olodumare. The intention is to find out whether the marriage will benefit the extended family. Symbolic presents are made to the priest of Orunmila. The priest of Orunmila is known as the Keeper of Secrets or fortune-teller (Babalawo). The gifts include a goat, two fowl, two pigeons, a tortoise, and a snail. This ritual consultation serves as an occasion for the redistribution of meat, a scarce commodity in Yoruba society. Parts of the goat, such as the head and the hind legs, are sent as present to the elderly members of the consulting family. The rest of the goat is cooked for the members of the extended family of the fortune-teller. The other items serve as the consultation fees for the service rendered. Again, it is very rare for the results of the oracle divination to contradict the general mood of the extended family modeled on the findings of the go-between. It is not without reason that the pragmatic Yoruba proverb emphatically asserts that one ought to use one's hands to repair one's fortune (Owo eni laafi ti tun ara eni se).
If the oracle is positive, the process of courtship, until then private and secretive, now becomes a public event with all the formality for which the ancient, dignified Yoruba culture is known. If the portent is negative, elders dig up some forgotten past occurrence that has prohibited marriage between members of both families. The sociological significance of this step in the marital process has to do with the desire to cloak the wishes of the extended family in the present in the garb of tradition so as to make the results more final and readily acceptable to the parties. It would be unthinkable in the traditional close-knit Yoruba society for the spouses to take the only choice left to them by refusing the pronouncement of the oracle and opting to elope. In the Yoruba traditional society, one's fortunes and safety are guaranteed only as a member of one's group of ascription. To separate oneself from the group by elopement would amount to social suicide.
Once the approval has been given, the suitor is then allowed to visit the home of the prospective spouse. The visit takes place at dusk and is accompanied by an extreme show of cordiality. The suitor is always accompanied by a male peer. The visitors greet every senior member of the household, male and female. Upon the conclusion of the elaborate greeting, seats for them are placed in a conspicuous place. The two sit patiently and endure being ignored for about an hour. They then begin the elaborate ritual of departure, which includes completely prostrating themselves flat on the belly for one senior member of the house after another. Upon the conclusion of this ritual, the suitor goes out and waits patiently for the spouse to emerge. When the spouse arrives, the male companion moves to a safe distance.
A unique aspect of the first six visits is that only the male speaks. By the seventh meeting, the male pays the female the equivalent of two dollars and ten cents to release, literally, the voice of the spouse to converse (si ohun). This ritual establishes a hierarchy of superordination and subordination. The wife-to-be is already conceding to the prospective husband the right to be the head of the family. These visits continue for six months, after which the time is set for the crucial ceremony of Itoro.
Itoro—begging for the prospective spouse's hand in marriage—is conducted between the male elders of the suitor and the spouse. The man's family members pay a visit to the compound of the extended family of the prospective spouse. It is important that the visit be unannounced, even though everyone involved seems to be in the right place at the right time. It is important too that upon arrival at the woman's house, her father uses symbolic language to tell the visitors that it is not his right, but that of his elders, to give his daughter in marriage. He proceeds to take the group to the eldest member of the family. At the house of the eldest member, all the senior members of the prospective spouse's lineage are waiting. This deference of the father to the eldest member of the family is a demonstration that the marriage of a member of the family is the business of all the members of the extended family because the suitor and the spouse are ambassadors of their extended families. The two families become united in a very special way by the union of the two people in marriage. Before the parties depart, a date is set for the most important ceremony, the Idana or creating the affinal tie.
The Idana ceremony centers on the payment of bride-wealth. This payment officially transfers the two crucial rights in the woman to the extended family of the suitor. Although the Yoruba term for bride-wealth literally translates Owo ori as "money for the head," in actual fact, this practice has, among the Yoruba, little to do with the transfer of economic resources as price for the wife-tobe. Yoruba families would cringe at the idea of putting monetary value on the head of a daughter. The presents involved in this ceremony have very little economic worth. Their significance has to do with the symbolic value they reiterate for enhancing the goals and objectives of the Yoruba family.
The anthropology of bride-wealth has identified prime and contingent obligations as the two categories of bride-wealth (Fortes 1962; Babatunde 1998). Primary obligations are essential to marriage because they transfer the core rights in the woman as a mother to the house of her husband. This core right is the procreative rights of the woman. Contingent obligations, however, transfer the rights to the woman as a homemaker.
The items involved in the Yoruba primary obligations are not negotiable. They have been fixed by tradition, and their use is not restricted to marriage because the culture tends, generally, to repeat rituals continuously to reinforce the aim, intention, purpose, and acceptable practices deemed crucial to the survival of the group. These items that are used in other rituals of the Yoruba life-cycle retain the same symbolic function. They include honey (oyin), salt (iyo), palm oil (epo pupa), kola nut (obi; kola acuminata), and bitter kola (Orogbo). Each item serves as a motif for prayers that reinforce what is desirable and necessary to make a marriage, and, indeed, life itself successful. Examples of prayers include:
- This is honey; the quality of honey is sweetness. May your married life be sweet, that is, happy by being blessed with many children and money to take care of them.
- This is salt. It preserves and sweetens, may you be preserved in your lives so that you live long and see your children's children.
- This is palm oil. It reduces the harsh taste of pepper in the soup. May the harsh impact of difficult times be ameliorated;
- This is kola nut. It produces prolifically. May you wife be as fertile as the kola nut tree and be blessed with many children who survive and do great things in life;
- This is bitter kola. It means that you will live long and see your children achieve great things in your lifetime;
- This is a pen. We use it to write. Education is the means to greatness. May you learn to read and write and become famous through achievement in education;
- This is the Bible/Koran. It is the holy book of power. May your faith provide direction to you in life;
- This is candle. It lights the way. May the word of God provide the light that will guide you through life;
- This is money. Money is needed for fulfillment and enjoyment of life. May you be blessed with plenty of it in your lifetime.
The property or quality of each item in the ritual repertoire is used to attempt to achieve a similar effect in the couple about to get married. This is based on the twin magical principles of the effect of like producing like and on effect by contact. The special quality of the ritual item is used as a motif in the prayer to reinforce the purpose and expectation of marriage. Taste is transformed to a condition of living in terms of what the Yoruba regard as happiness. Thus, a life that is sweet is equal to one that is happy. Yoruba understanding of happiness includes wealth, demonstrated in long life, begetting many healthy children who outlive their parents, having many wives, large cash crop farms, and status in the community.
The secondary obligations consist of duties that are periodically performed by the son-in-law to parent-in-law. The husband performs these duties as a continuous demonstration of his indebtedness to the family that has provided him with a wife. These duties include the provision of free labor to weed the farms, thatch leaking roofs, and harvest farm products, and political and economic support in times of competition for the various achieved status in the Yoruba community.
Co-Wife and Sibling Rivalry
Rivalry between co-wives and between siblings is useful for the maintenance of patrilineal ideology. To prevent the conjugal tie from threatening loyalty to the lineage, a wedge is put between husband and wife (Babatunde 1983). From the start, the wife understands that the Yoruba monogamy is the commencement of a possible polygyny (Sudarkasa 1996). The thought of sharing one's beloved with other wives reduces the intensity of the conjugal tie. A second source of rivalry is the practice that a man can marry two or more wives. The division of children within the family according to mothers creates competing groups within the family. Children of the same mother (Omo Iya) are often set against those of other mothers. The term that describes all the children who belong to the same father is Obakan. The relationship between the Omo-Iya and Obakan, respectively, must be understood in the dialectical terms referred to by Edward Evans-Pritchard as "fusion and fission" (1940). Children of the same father, Obakan, unite to protect their father's property and their common interests. When competing for resources within the family, they subdivide into groups of children of the same mother to protect their interests at this level. Yoruba fireside tales, told while the evening meal is cooking, often reiterate the lesson of the jealous co-wife who, in the attempt to hurt the children of her co-wife, ends up killing her own children. The Yoruba practice of having co-wives and all children eat from the same big bowl of food is both a way to prevent internal divisions within the family and to lessen those that already exist.
Monogamous marriages also have sibling rivalry, especially in contemporary times. Because seniority exerts some political control in the group, the assumption is that elders know more. As long as the society remained agrarian, the arrogation of roles and statuses sought to respect the function of seniority in the articulation of control. Morally contradictory practices like efforts to deliberately tell lies to protect the integrity of the senior were condoned. The ability to dissemble was seen as a proof of cultural suavity. With modernization, individual achievement and merit replaced the privileges of ascription and seniority. Ability, not age, became the most important factor in seniority. Conflict arose because many junior siblings seemed to succeed more in the new order. This change made the position of the senior son or daughter precarious. The significant amount of mistrust and conflict between senior and junior siblings in contemporary Yoruba families is the price that is being paid to resolve the transition from the predictable agrarian culture to the complex modern culture.
Birth Control and Childrearing
Among the Yoruba, the weaning practice maintains a three-year gap between births. Subtle cultural methods of reinforcements are brought to bear on the female to observe this method of spacing and birth control. Since the Yoruba social structure is male-oriented, some of those methods of enforcement of traditional forms of birth control are asymmetrical. They impose the duty of control on the female while excusing the male from the same rigorous disciplinary expectations. To satisfy his sexual cravings at this time, the Yoruba man is allowed to take another wife, with the supposed assistance of the first wife. If a wife gets pregnant within oneand one-half years of giving birth, she is made the subject of jokes and made to look like one who belongs to the wild, one whose hot passions were not tamed as she grew up. Not only is she the focus of jokes, but by extension, her extended family is blamed, too. The husband is not exempt from blame, but is excused to begin a relationship that can become formalized into a marriage.
A more positive method of birth control is the cultural obligation of continence for the mother once her daughter begins to give birth to children. This expectation is related to the expectation that the mother spends between three to six months to assist the daughter in nursing and postpartum care. When they see the need, the Yoruba use innuendo, derisive songs, and open avoidance to show disapproval for mothers who compete with their daughters to have children.
Morality, Childrearing, and Food Distribution Among the Yoruba
Anthropological literature on African infant care practices (Babatunde 1992) reiterates that children are being prepared to seek group survival through acquiring a sense of belonging and loyalty to the group. Living in a harsh environment with rudimentary technology, other people constitute ones' technology (Turnbull 1974). So Yoruba parents teach their children obligatory sharing. They also teach them practical lessons by withholding portions of meat, eggs, and other animal foods from children because they believe that when children acquire tastes in these expensive and scarce commodities, the desire to satisfy them will make children steal (Ransome-Kuti 1972). From a more pragmatic economic perspective, it was also considered most uneconomical to eat an egg that could produce a chicken, which would in turn produce more chickens. Thus, in the attempt to teach discipline, self-denial and deferred gratification, this pattern of food distribution within the family leads to unintended nutritional crises. Although claims about these crises were made in qualitative research studies, only in the 1990s were the claims empirically confirmed by quantitative research findings (Setiloane 1995).
In a study conducted as part of UNICEF's Child Development Project in Nigeria from 1986 to 1989 entitled Child Development for the Computer Age, quantitative research using anthropometrics measures was conducted in rural and semirural settlements along Ifo-Otta, in Ogun State, forty-five minutes from Lagos. To be eligible for this family study, the mother had to be Yoruba; the child had to be between twenty-two and twenty-six months old; the child could not be a twin. The researchers also required that the child have a birth certificate to verify its age and that both mother and child lived in the household. A systematic sampling frame specified that every second house was to be selected, with daily starting points. Sample size for the cross-sectional field research totaled 211, including a census sample of 181 mothers and their children and an additional subsample of thirty households screened for the presence of malnourished children.
Survey instruments included a fifty-two item questionnaire that asked how frequently foods were consumed, as well as structured observations of feeding and play; the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bayley 1969); a socioeconomic and attitudinal questionnaire containing the Caldwell H.O.M.E Inventory (Cadwell and Bradley 1984); an ethnographic study of ten households, and, finally, anthropometrics measurements of weights and heights of children. The impact of beliefs on withholding meat and nutrient-dense foods for children was surveyed in a section with the question: Is there any reason why you don't think a child of this age should have more meat? The participants answered yes or no to the following choices: (a) more might cause child to have worms; (b) more might cause a child to steal; and (c) more could spoil child so he expects too much when things are scarce. This section also included the question: Do you believe that a child of this age (two years) should have more meat if you can afford it?
Responses to questions on stealing, spoiling, and moral character were combined together using factor analysis to create an index. The score of any respondent could range from a minimum of 0 (0 on all 3 items) to a maximum of 3 (1 on all 3 items). The index was subsequently condensed to a dichotomous variable representing mothers who had abandoned all beliefs about meat and moral training (0) and those who retained one or more (1). Each of these variables was used alternatively as a measure of mother's beliefs.
The data collected show that the distribution pattern gave available meat to fathers and mothers at the expense of their children. Among adults, men were favored over women. The median values of mothers' allocation rules deprive the children relative to their protein requirement needs when they need it most—between age one day to two years—and gives adult males more than their nutritional requirements. Although this outcome was predictable given the Yoruba male-oriented ideology, what was surprising was the result of the data on the impact of modernization on food allocation. A more in-depth examination of the meat allocation rule through cluster analysis showed that the total amount of meat mothers allocate changes with modernization. However, the ratio of meat relative to the total available remains the same, and adult males still get much more than their nutritional needs. But because modernization makes more amount of meat available, the children get more meat to meet their requirements. The data prove the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
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Voeks, R. (1997). Sacred Leaves of Candomble. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Warner-Lewis, M. (1996). Trinidad Yoruba: From MotherTongue to Memory. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
Pearce, T. O. (2000). "Gender and Governance in Africa: A Conceptual Framework for Research and Policy Analysis and Monitoring." A draft paper presented at The African Knowledge Networks Forum Preparatory Workshop, 17-18 August 2000, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Available from http://www.uneca.org/aknf/pub/gengovern.htm.
emmanuel d. babatunde
kelebogile v. setiloane
ETHNONYMS: Anago, Awori, Egba, Egbado, Ekiti, Ibadan, Ife, Ifonyin, Igbomina, Ijebu, Ijesha, Ketu, Kwara, Ondo, Owo, Oyo, Shabe
Identification. The name "Yoruba" appears to have been applied by neighbors to the Kingdom of Oyo and adopted by missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century to describe a wider, language-sharing family of peoples. These peoples have gradually accepted the term to designate their language and ethnicity in relation to other major ethnic groups, but among themselves they tend to use the subgroup ethnonyms listed above.
Location. The Yoruba peoples reside in West Africa between approximately 2° and 5° E and between the seacoast and 8° N. Today this area occupies most of southwestern Nigeria and spills into the People's Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey) and Togo. Yoruba homelands, roughly the size of England, straddle a diverse terrain ranging from tropical rain forest to open savanna countryside. The climate is marked by wet and dry seasons.
Linguistic Affiliation. Yoruba belongs to the Kwa Group of the Niger-Congo Language Family. Linguists believe it separated from neighboring languages 2,000 to 6,000 years ago. Despite its divergent dialects, efforts are being made to standardize the language for use in the media and primary schools.
Demography. The Yoruba-speaking population of Nigeria was estimated to be 20 million in the early 1990s.
The movement of populations into present Yorubaland appears to have been a slow process that began in the northeast, where the Niger and Benue rivers meet, and spread south and southwest. Archaeological evidence indicates Stone Age inhabitants were in this area between the tenth and second centuries b.c. By the ninth century a.d., blacksmithing and agriculture had emerged at Ife, a settlement that reached an artistic and political zenith between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries and is mythologized as the cradle of Yoruba peoples. Political development also appears to have been slow and incremental. Never unified politically, the Yoruba at contact were organized in hundreds of minor polities ranging from villages to city-states to large kingdoms, of which there were about twenty. Expansion took place through the federation of small communities and, later, through aggressive conquest. The famed Kingdom of Oyo, which emerged in the fourteenth century, relied heavily on trade and conquest to make it West Africa's largest coastal empire. At its peak in the late seventeenth century, seventy war chiefs lived in the capital city.
For many Yoruba, urbanism was a way of life. Europeans learned of the city of Ijebu Ode early in the sixteenth century, when they exchanged brass bracelets for slaves and ivory. The Ijebu Yoruba were, and continue to be, known for their business acumen. Commerce with Europe expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the New World demand for slaves increased. This lucrative trade stimulated competition, a thirst for increased power, and a rise in internal warfare that laid waste to the countryside and depopulated vast areas. Oyo declined in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but urban populations expanded, and two new states emerged, Ibadan and Egba, founded by wartime refugees.
Following the abolition of the slave trade, missionaries arrived in the 1840s, and Great Britain annexed a small strip of the Yoruba-dominated coastland—the Settlement of Lagos—in 1861. Gradually, British forces and traders worked their way inland; by the dawn of the twentieth century, all Yoruba were brought into the empire. Early exposure to Christian education and economic opportunities gave the Yoruba an advantage in penetrating European institutions. By the time of Nigerian independence (1960), they had taken over most high administrative positions in their region, making theirs a relatively smooth transition to a Westernized bureaucratic government.
Neighboring groups are the Bariba, Nupe, Hausa, Igala, and Idoma to the north; the Edo (Benin), Ijo, Urhobo, and Igbo to the east; and the Fon, Ewe, and Egun to the west. Since precolonial times, there has been extensive contact among population groups and, consequently, much cultural blending in the borderlands.
From early times, Yoruba settlements varied in size from hunting and farming camps to cities, the largest of which had 20,000 to more than 60,000 inhabitants by the 1850s. Most indigenous capitals were circular, densely settled, and protected by earthen walls. Typically, a royal compound measuring around a hectare and a market occupied the centers. Clustered around them in pie-shaped wedges were the residences of chiefly and commoner families. Agricultural lands lay outside the walls, and farmers commuted from town to farm. The usual in-town residence was a rectangular compound, the outer walls consisting of contiguous rows of rooms that surrounded an inner courtyard used for cooking, domestic work, and social life. Buildings were constructed of mud bricks and covered with thatch. Today they are of concrete blocks or concrete-washed walls roofed with tin or zinc. Compounds are being replaced by large multistoried, freestanding structures, arranged in two long rows of rooms bisected by a central corridor.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The precolonial economy was primarily based on agriculture and trade, although fishing, hunting, and crafts were significant. As recently as 1950, two-thirds of the men were farmers. Depending on the ecological zone, the main food crops included beans, yams, and, later, cassava and maize. The main cash crops have been kola and cocoa in the forest belt and cotton and, more recently, tobacco elsewhere. Intercropping and swidden methods have been practiced, with fallow periods ranging from three to ten years following a typical three-year cultivation period. Until around the mid-twentieth century, mechanization and draught animals were lacking; the main tools are still the hoe, ax, and machete. Yoruba women seldom farm, although they may assist with harvesting or transporting produce. Farmers have suffered in the late twentieth century from fluctuating world prices for cash crops, civil war, and an oil boom, all of which have driven many into urban employment in commercial, governmental, and service sectors.
Industrial Arts. Men traditionally practiced metalworking, wood carving, and weaving. Since the mid-nineteenth century, they have also taken up carpentry, tailoring, and shoemaking. Artisans often belonged to guilds. Women's crafts included pottery making, spinning, dyeing, weaving, and basketry; dressmaking was added in the nineteenth century.
Trade. An extensive system of marketing and long-distance trade is a hallmark of Yoruba history. Precontact overland commerce emphasized kola, woven cloth, and salt; coastal trade with Europeans involved slaves, cloth, ivory, and, by the nineteenth century, palm products. Both men and women conducted long-distance commerce. Women organized local trade networks and markets and, as a consequence, were given official roles in public affairs. Markets still meet daily, at night, and in periodic cycles of four or eight days. Their revenues still help to support local government.
Division of Labor. There is a division of labor according to sex (see "Industrial Arts" and "Trade") and a clear division of finances. Husbands and wives keep their work and accounts separately, each taking responsibility for some household and child-care expenses. Labor also is divided according to age: heavy work is reserved for the young; the load lightens with age. The goal is to gain sufficient wealth to control the labor of others and thereby free oneself from physical work and from being accountable to a superior.
Land Tenure. Most land is held corporately by descent groups and allocated to members according to need. Rights to use farmland and housing are primarily patrilateral in the north (although rights can be acquired through female agnates) and cognatic in the south. Tenant farming, sharecropping, and leasing were introduced by the British. The land-tenure system was changed in 1978 when the Nigerian government took control of all unoccupied or unused land and rights to allocate it.
Kin Groups and Descent. Descent groups are important in marking status, providing security, and regulating inheritance. There are strong bilateral tendencies, but agnatic ties are emphasized among northern Yoruba, among whom descent groups once were largely coterminus with residence, but not among southern Yoruba, who tend to have more dispersed residences and stress cognatic ties. Descent groups have names and founding ancestors, and in some cases they own chieftaincy titles. Women rarely succeed to the titles, although their sons can. Descent groups formerly regulated marriage, agriculture, and family ceremonies and maintained internal discipline. Elder male members still act as decision makers, adjudicators, and administrators; formerly, they served as representatives in civic affairs. Extended-family relationships are individually cultivated and are important for mobilizing various types of support.
Kinship Terminology. The few basic kinship terms are applied in a classificatory manner. Except for mother/father, grandmother/grandfather, and wife/husband, there are no gender-specific terms; senior siblings are distinguished from junior siblings; no cousin distinctions are made; and all children are addressed by the same term regardless of sex or age. To indicate more precise relationships, descriptive phrases must be used.
Marriage. Marriage is prohibited among people who can trace a biological relationship. There are no ideal partners. First marriages still may be arranged by elders, who assess the suitability of spouses in terms of mental and physical health, character, or propitiousness of the union. Some marriage alliances were arranged for political or economic reasons. The type of ritual and amount of bride-wealth depended on the status of the partners. Marital residence was patrilocal but in the late twentieth century has become neolocal. Men traditionally married, and some continue to marry, polygynously. Increasingly since the mid-twentieth century, marriages between educated men and women reflect personal choice. Divorce is now common, although it is said to have been rare in precolonial times.
Domestic Unit. Agnatically related men often shared the same large compound, taking separate sections for their wives and children. Each wife had a separate room but cooked for and made conjugal visits to her husband in rotation. Until the age of puberty, children slept in their mothers' rooms; youths moved to a common room, and girls soon moved to the compounds of their husbands.
Inheritance. Landed property is inherited corporately following descent-group lines; other property such as money or personal belongings is divided among direct heirs, with equal shares going to the set of children born to each wife. Nothing is passed to a senior relative or wife unless there is a will. Wives and slaves were once inherited by junior siblings.
Socialization. The closest ties are between mother and child. Mothers indulge their children, whereas fathers are more remote and strict. A child is treated permissively until about age 2, after which physical punishment and ridicule are used to regulate behavior. Pre-Western and pre-Islamic education stressed economic and psychological independence, but not social independence. Children learned occupations from parents of the same sex by participating from age 5 or 6 in their work. Imitation and games played a large part in socialization.
Social Organization. Social status was and still is determined according to sex, age, descent group, and wealth. These features determine seniority in social relationships and govern each actor's rights, obligations, and comportment vis-à-vis others. In the past, elder males ideally held most positions of civic authority, although senior women were known to do so. Emerging class distinctions are calculated according to wealth, education, and occupation. High prestige also goes to people who are generous, hospitable, and helpful to others.
Political Organization. The indigenous political system consisted of a ruler and an advisory council of chiefs who represented the significant sectors of a society: descent groups, the military, religious cults, age grades, markets, and secret societies. Such representatives advised, adjudicated, administered, and set rules. The ruler performed rituals, conducted external affairs, kept peace, and wielded general powers of life and death over his subjects. Palace officials acted as intermediaries between the king and chiefs of outlying towns and tributary holdings. The political structure of each village or town replicated, in smaller scale, the structure of the capital. Kingship and some chiefships were hereditary. Primogeniture was not practiced; rather, branches of a ruling house were allowed to choose, in turn, from among competitor-members. Other titles could be achieved or bestowed as an honor. Today the ancient political systems survive with new functions as arms of local government.
Depending on gravity and scale, disputes or crimes were judged by descent group leaders, chiefs, rulers, or secret societies. Order was maintained by these same authorities and their aides. Deterrents included fear of harsh punishment, supernatural retribution, curses, ostracism, and gossip.
Conflict. Internal struggles for power were strongest between the monarch and town or warrior chiefs. External conflict involved raiding for slaves and booty and large-scale warfare. From 1967 to 1970, a civil war pitted Yoruba and northern peoples against their eastern neighbors; the battle ravaged the nation and depleted its resources. Hostility, precipitated by the quest for power and national resources, persists along ethnic and subgroup lines.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The ancient Yoruba religious system has a pantheon of deities who underpin an extensive system of cults. Rituals are focused on the explanation, prediction, and control of mystical power. Formerly, religious beliefs were diffused widely by itinerant priests whose divinations, in the form of verses, myths, and morality tales, were sufficiently standardized to constitute a kind of oral scripture. In addition to hundreds of anthropomorphic deities, the cosmos contains a host of other supernatural forces. Mystical power of a positive nature is associated with ancestors, the earth, deities of place (especially hills, trees, and rivers), and medicines and charms. Power of an unpredictable, negative nature is associated with a trickster deity; with witches, sorcerers, and their medicines and charms; and with personified powers in the form of Death, Disease, Infirmity, and Loss. Individuals inherit or acquire deities, through divination or inspiration.
Christianity was introduced from the south in the mid-nineteenth century; Islam came from the north in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Today Yoruba allegiances are divided between the two global faiths, yet many simultaneously uphold aspects of the ancient religious legacy. Syncretistic groups also blend Islam or Christianity with Yoruba practices.
Religious Practitioners. Priests and priestesses exercised considerable influence in precolonial times. They were responsible for divining, curing, maintaining peace and harmony, administering war magic, and organizing extensive rites and festivals. Many duties of political and religious authorities overlapped.
Ceremonies. Rituals are performed largely to appease or gain favor. They take place at every level, from individuals to groups, families, or whole communities. In addition to rites of passage, elaborate masquerades or civic festivals are performed for important ancestors, to celebrate harvest, or, formerly, to bring victory in war.
Arts. The Yoruba are known for their contributions to the arts. Life-size bronze heads and terracottas, sculpted in a classical style between a.d. 1000 and 1400 and found at the ancient city of Ife, have been widely exhibited. Other art forms are poetry, myth, dance, music, body decoration, weaving, dyeing, embroidery, pottery, calabash carving, leather- and beadworking, jewelry making, and metalworking.
Medicine. Yoruba medicine involves a full spectrum of ritual, psychological, and herbal treatments. Rarely practiced in isolation, curing is as dependent on possession, sacrifices, or incantations as medicinal preparations. Curing is learned through an apprenticeship and revealed slowly, because treatments are closely guarded secrets.
Death and Afterlife. Each individual is endowed with an inner force that determines his or her destiny. It is part of one's "multiple soul," which after death either resides in the sky with other mystical powers or is reincarnated. As ancestors, the dead influence the living, and sacrifices are made to gain their favor. Funeral rites are commensurate with one's importance in life—simple for children but elaborate for authority figures.
Bascom, William (1969). The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Eades, J. S. (1980). The Yoruba Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fadipe, N. A. (1970). The Sociology of the Yoruba. Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press.
Lloyd, P. C. (1965). "The Yoruba of Nigeria." In Peoples of Africa, edited by James L. Gibbs, Jr., 549-582. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Smith, Robert S. (1988). Kingdoms of the Yoruba. 3rd ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
SANDRA T. BARNES
POPULATION: 5.3 million
1 • INTRODUCTION
The Yoruba are one of the largest African ethnic groups south of the Sahara Desert. They are, in fact, not a single group, but rather a collection of diverse people bound together by a common language, history, and culture. Within Nigeria, the Yoruba dominate the western part of the country. Yoruba mythology holds that all Yoruba people descended from a hero called Odua or Oduduwa. Today there are over fifty individuals who claim kingship as descendants of Odua.
During the four centuries of the slave trade, Yoruba territory was known as the Slave Coast. Uncounted numbers of Yoruba were carried to the Americas. Their descendants preserved Yoruba traditions. In several parts of the Caribbean and South America, Yoruba religion has been combined with Christianity. In 1893, the Yoruba kingdoms in Nigeria became part of the Protectorate of Great Britain. Until 1960 Nigeria was a British colony and the Yoruba were British subjects. On October 1, 1960, Nigeria became an independent nation structured as a federation of states.
2 • LOCATION
The Yoruba homeland is located in west Africa. It stretches from a savanna (grassland) region in the north to a region of tropical rain forests in the south. Most Yoruba live in Nigeria. However there are also some scattered groups in Benin and Togo, small countries to the west of Nigeria. The occupations and living conditions of the Yoruba in the north and south differ sharply.
Current census figures are difficult to obtain. The Yoruba population is estimated to be 5.3 million.
3 • LANGUAGE
The Yoruba language belongs to the Congo-Kordofanian language family. Yoruba has many dialects, but its speakers can all understand each other.
Yoruba is a tonal language. The same combination of vowels and consonants has different meanings depending on the pitch of the vowels (whether they are pronounced with a high voice or a low voice). For example, the same word, aro, can mean cymbal, indigo dye, lamentation, and granary, depending on intonation. Pele o is "Hello"; Bawo ni? is "How are you?"; and Dada ni is "Fine, thank you."
4 • FOLKLORE
According to a Yoruba creation myth, the deities (gods) originally lived in the sky with only water below them. Olorun, the Sky God, gave to Orishala, the God of Whiteness, a chain, a bit of earth in a snail shell, and a five-toed chicken. He told Orishala to go down and create the earth. Orishala approached the gate of heaven. He saw some deities having a party and he stopped to greet them. They offered him palm wine and he drank too much and fell asleep. Odua, his younger brother, saw Orishala sleeping. He took the materials and went to the edge of heaven, accompanied by Chameleon. He let down the chain and they climbed down it. Odua threw the piece of earth on the water and placed the five-toed chicken upon it. The chicken began to scratch the earth, spreading it in all directions. After Chameleon had tested the firmness of the earth, Odua stepped down. A sacred grove is there today.
5 • RELIGION
As many as 20 percent of the Yoruba still practice the traditional religions of their ancestors.
The practice of traditional religion varies from community to community. For example, a deity (god) may be male in one village and female in another. Yoruba traditional religion holds that there is one supreme being and hundreds of orisha, or minor deities. The worshipers of a deity are referred to as his "children."
There are three gods who are available to all. Olorun (Sky God) is the high god, the Creator. One may call on him with prayers or by pouring water on kola nuts on the ground. Eshu (also called Legba by some) is the divine messenger who delivers sacrifices to Olorun after they are placed at his shrine. Everyone prays frequently to this deity. Ifa is the God of Divination, who interprets the wishes of Olorun to mankind. Believers in the Yoruba religion turn to Ifa in times of trouble. Another god, Ogun (god of war, the hunt, and metalworking), is considered one of the most important. In Yoruba courts, people who follow traditional beliefs swear to give truthful testimony by kissing a machete sacred to Ogun.
Shango (also spelled Sango and Sagoe) is the deity that creates thunder. The Yoruba believe that when thunder and lightning strike, Shango has thrown a thunderstone to earth. After a thunderstorm, Yoruba religious leaders search the ground for the thunderstone, which is believed to have special powers. The stones are housed in shrines dedicated to Shango. Shango has four wives, each representing a river in Nigeria.
The Yoruba who practice other religious are divided about evenly between Muslims (followers of Islam) and Christians. Nearly all Yoruba still observe annual festivals and other traditional religious practices.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Local festivals are usually dedicated to individual deities. Yoruba may also celebrate the following holidays, depending on whether they are Christians or Muslims: New Year's Day, January; Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice), June or July; Easter, March or April; Maulid an-Nabi (Muhammad's birthday); Ramadan, followed by a three-day feast; Nigerian Independence Day (October); Eid al-Fitr ; Christmas (December).
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
A newborn infant is sprinkled with water to make it cry. No word may be spoken until the infant cries. Also, no one younger than the mother should be present at the birth. The infant then is taken to the backyard. The umbilical cord is bound tightly with thread and then cut. The placenta is buried in the backyard. On the placenta burial spot, the child is bathed with a loofah sponge and rubbed with palm oil. The child is held by the feet and given three shakes to make it strong and brave. After a specified number of days, a naming ceremony is held. Relatives attend and bring small amounts of money. Male and female circumcision are usually performed in the first month.
Marriages are arranged. A man must negotiate with the girl's father. If he is approved he must bring the family a payment called a bride wealth, paid in three installments. Wedding ceremonies begin at the bride's house after dark. There is a feast to which the groom contributes yams. The bride then is taken to the groom's house. There she is washed from foot to knee with an herbal mixture meant to bring her many children. For the first eight days after marriage she divides her time between her husband's and in her parents' compounds. On the ninth day she moves to her husband's home.
Burials are performed by the adult men who are not close relatives but belong to the clan of the deceased. The grave is dug in the floor of the room where the deceased lived. After the burial there is a period of feasting. Many of the rituals associated with burial are intended to insure that the deceased will be reborn again.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Kinship is the most important relationship for the Yorubas. Best friends are very important as well. A best friend is referred to as "friend not-see-not-sleep." This means that one does not go to sleep without having seen his best friend. When approaching death, a Yoruba shares his last wishes with his best friend.
Also important are clubs that grow out of childhood associations. When a group of young friends starts spending time together, they form a club. They choose a name and invite an older man and woman to serve as advisors. The clubs continue through adulthood. They hold monthly meetings, with the members serving as hosts in turn.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Traditional compounds (which house clans) in Yoruba villages are made up of rectangular courtyards, each with a single entrance. Around each courtyard is an open or a partly enclosed porch. Here the women sit, weave, and cook. Behind this are the rooms of each adult. Today the old compounds are rapidly being replaced by modern bungalows made of cement blocks with corrugated iron roofs. Most Yoruba towns, even small ones, have adequate basic services, including electricity, running water, and paved roads.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Every Yoruba is born into a clan whose members are descended from a common ancestor. Descent is patrilineal—both sons and daughters are born into the clan of their father. Clan members live in a large residential area called a compound. The males are born, married, and buried in it. Females live in the compound of their birth until they marry. Then they go to live with their husbands. The eldest male, or Bale, is the head of the compound. A husband is responsible for settling quarrels within his own family. However, if he is unsuccessful or if an argument involves members of two different families, it is referred to the Bale.
Within the compound, the immediate family consists of a man, his wives, and their children. The Yoruba practice polygyny (having more than one wife). Each wife and her children are considered a sub-family. They have a separate room within the husband's and they share possessions. Each mother cooks for her own children only. A man is expected to treat each wife equally. However, wives compete to gain additional favors for their own children. The father is strict and distant. Often, he sees little of his children. When they are young, children of co-wives play together. However, as they grow older, they usually grow apart because of quarrels over possessions.
11 • CLOTHING
Western-style dress is worn in urban areas. Traditional clothing is still worn on important occasions and in rural areas. It is very colorful and elaborate. Traditional fabrics were block printed with geometric designs. Women wear a head tie made of a rectangular piece of fabric. They carry babies or young children on their backs by tying another rectangular cloth around their the waists. A third cloth may be worn over the shoulder as a shawl over a loose-fitting, short-sleeved blouse. A larger cloth serves as a wrap-around skirt.
Fufu (Pounded Yam)
Choose one of these:
- 3 or 4 white yams, preferably round and fat
- 3 or 4 orange yams
- 1 bunch plaintains
- 1 bunch green (unripe) bananas
- Peel the vegetable or fruit of choice and cut into chunks or slices. Place the pieces into a pot and cover with water.
- Cover the pot and heat until the water boils. Cook until the yams (plaintains or green bananas) can be pierced easily with a fork.
- Drain well and place one or two pieces into a large mortar and pestle. Pound the pieces until a mass is formed that pulls away from the sides of the mortar. (This cannot be done with an electric mixer, because the pounded yams will be very stiff.)
Fufu is served with soups and stews at main meals. Diners pinch off a piece of fufu, make an indentation in it, and use it as a spoon to scoop up a mouthful of the main dish.
Chicken and Okra Soup
- 6 to 10 chicken legs or wings
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 18 large okra, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dry ground red pepper
- 1½ ounces (40 grams) dry crayfish, ground
- 2 medium fresh tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- Pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon potash
- Place the chicken in a pot with salt and pepper, cover with water and boil until tender. Drain, reserving broth for next step. Remove meat from bones and cut into bite-sized chunks.
- Combine okra with reserved broth and remaining ingredients. Boil for 5 minutes. Add chicken and continue to cook for 5 minutes more. Serve with fufu.
Men wear tailored cloth hats, gowns, and trousers. One popular type of gown is shaped like a poncho. It reaches to the fingertips, but is worn folded back on the shoulders. Trousers are usually very loose and baggy. All the cloth for traditional clothing is hand woven. Often it is elaborately embroidered.
12 • FOOD
The Yoruba diet consists of starchy tubers, grains, and plantains. These are supplemented by vegetable oils, wild and cultivated fruits and vegetables, meat, and fish. The daily family diet relies on cassava, taro, maize, beans, and plantains. One of the most popular foods is fufu (or foo-foo ), similar to a dumpling, but made of cassava (white yams). Rice and yams are eaten on special occasions.
The recipes are very popular and are usually served together.
13 • EDUCATION
Since attaining independence (1960), Nigeria has set a high priority on education. Universal primary education has become the norm in southern Nigeria, where the Yoruba live. Secondary school (high school) education also became common. The first university in Nigeria was located in a Yoruba city. Originally called University College, it is now known as the University of Ibadan. The majority of students at Ibadan are Yoruba.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
The Yoruba oral tradition includes praise poems, tongue twisters, hundreds of prose narratives and riddles, and thousands of proverbs.
Yoruba music includes songs of ridicule and praise, as well as lullabies, religious songs, war songs, and work songs. These usually follow a "call and response" pattern between a leader and chorus. Rhythm is provided by drums, iron gongs, cymbals, rattles, and hand clapping. Other instruments include long brass trumpets, ivory trumpets, whistles, stringed instruments, and metallophones. Perhaps the most interesting musical instrument is the "talking drum." The "talking drum" features an hourglass shape with laces that can be squeezed to tighten the goatskin head, altering the drum's pitch.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
About 75 percent of the Yoruba men are farmers, producing food crops for their domestic needs. Farming is considered men's work. Clearing or hoeing fields is done only by men. Wives help their husbands plant yams and harvest corn, beans, and cotton. They also help at the market, selling farm produce. Some Yoruba have large cocoa farms worked by hired labor.
The Yoruba enjoy trading. Huge markets with over a thousand sellers are common. Trade in foodstuffs and cloth is confined to women. Meat selling and produce buying are the province of men.
The new, educated generation is moving away from farming, and its members are looking for white-collar jobs.
16 • SPORTS
Although there are few organized sports, Yoruba (like other Nigerians) in some areas participate in wrestling and soccer.
17 • RECREATION
Traditional entertainment includes rituals, dancing, and music making. Modern forms of entertainment include watching television and going to movies and discos. Most households own televisions sets. The more religious households prohibit family members, especially women, from going to see films. Among urban teenagers, American youth culture is popular. Most young people listen to rap and rock music from the U.S. Ayo, a board game, is popular among people of all ages. It is a mancala game—a type of game popular in west Africa, that is played on a board with two rows of indentations or wells that are filled with small seeds or stones.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Crafts include weaving, embroidering, pottery making, woodcarving, leather and bead working, and metalworking.
Both men and women weave, using different types of looms. Cloth is woven from wild silk and from locally grown cotton.
Men also do embroidery, particularly on men's gowns and caps, and work as tailors and dressmakers. Floor mats and mat storage bags are also made by men.
Women are the potters. In addition to palm oil lamps, they make over twenty kinds of pots and dishes for cooking, eating, and carrying and storing liquids.
Woodcarvers, all of whom are men, carve masks and figurines as well as mortars, pestles, and bowls. Some Yoruba woodcarvers also work in bone, ivory, and stone. Blacksmiths work both in iron and brass to create both useful and decorative objects.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
There are vast differences in wealth among Yoruba of different social classes. Many urban occupations do not provide adequate wages to support a family.
The crime rate in Nigeria is high, particularly in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, and other urban areas. More than half the offenses are property crimes. Drug-related crime is a major problem. Young people are using both marijuana and cocaine in increasing numbers.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bascom, William. The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1984.
Hetfield, Jamie. The Yoruba of West Africa. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 1996.
Koslow, Philip. Yorubaland: The Flowering of Genius. Kingdoms of Africa. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/ng/gen.html, 1998.
The Yoruba are a West African people who inhabit southwest Nigeria, the southern Benin Republic (formerly Dahomey), and southern Togo. Known in the Americas by subethnic names such as Yaraba, Oyo, Aku, Nago, Lucumi, Ijesha, Egba, and Ijebu, transatlantic Yoruba-speaking communities and customs reestablished themselves following dispersal by the slave trade. Yoruba slave exports began in the late 1700s, but the collapse of the Yoruba imperial capital at Oyo circa 1837 and attendant civil wars augmented their slave numbers. This volume was maintained until the abolition of the slave trade in Brazil in 1850. In the British Caribbean, where the slave trade became illegal after 1807, captured Africans were imported as indentured laborers until the 1860s.
Yorubaland's late role as a slave reservoir accounts for the persistence of Yoruba culture in Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, and Grenada. Cultural manifestations include language use restricted largely to ritual, food preparations and names, folktales and legends, divination methods and accompanying poetry, sacred and secular songs, drum types, and drum rhythms. The most overt cultural domain is religion, centered on natural forces called orishas (Orixás) meaning "saints," or "powers." Each orisha is identified by specific colors, paraphernalia, and chants. Ceremonies are conducted by the self- or family-appointed male or female leader of a religious community, as the religion possesses no overall regulatory body. Yoruba-derived ceremonies are most elaborately articulated in Shango in Recife, Candomblé in Bahia, and Santería of Cuba. Trinidad and Grenada maintain analogous rituals, called Shango or Orisha. Ancestor veneration is a subsidiary aspect of the religion, but is separately enacted in the Saraka in Trinidad and Carriacou (the Grenadines), Etu in Jamaica, and Oku in Guyana. Overall, the cultural distinctiveness of the Yoruba in different nations reveals the ways in which culture can be creatively adapted to local environments and survive. Also, local governments have come to accept at least parts of the Yoruba culture. For instance, in Bahia, Brazil, local Candomblé ceremonies are now promoted for tourism purposes.
William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria (1969), and Shango in the New World (1972).
George Simpson, Black Religions in the New World (1978).
Sheila Walker, "Everyday and Esoteric Reality in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé," in History of Religions 30, no. 2 (1990): 103-128.
José Jorge De Carvalho and Rita Laura Segato, Shango Cult in Recife, Brazil (1992).
Falola, Toyin, and Matt D. Childs, eds. The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Maureen Warner Lewis
Yo·ru·ba / ˈyôrəbə/ • n. (pl. same or -bas ) 1. a member of a people of southwestern Nigeria and Benin. 2. the Kwa language of this people and an official language of Nigeria.• adj. of or relating to the Yoruba or their language.