LOCATION: West Africa (primarily Nigeria; also Benin and Togo)
POPULATION: 5.3 million
RELIGION: Ancestral religion; Islam; Christianity
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although there are few organized sports, Yoruba (like other Nigerians) in some areas participate in wrestling and soccer.
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.
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.
There are vast differences in wealth among Yoruba of different social classes. Many urban occupations do not provide adequate wages to support a family.
Nigeria's human rights record is poor. A Yoruba, Olisa Agbakobe, led a group of lawyers that founded the human rights group, the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO).
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.
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.