The Yoruba People

Pronunciation: yawr-uh-buh.

Location: West Africa (primarily Nigeria, also Benin and Togo)

Population: Over 5.3 million.

Language: Yoruba.

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 a collection of diverse people bound together by a common long history and culture. The Oyo empire, which became dominant in the early seventeen century was founded by the deities Oduduwa and Obatala. Oduduwa was the first divine king of the Yoruba people and Obatala fashioned the first human beings out of clay, It is said that the Yoruba people believed that their civilization began at ile-ife where the gods descended to the earth. Yoruba mythology holds that all Yoruba people descended from the hero called Oduduwa. Today, there are over fifty individuals who claim kingship as descendants of Oduduwa.

The Yoruba Homeland is located in West Africa. It stretches from a savanna (grass land) 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 Yoruba language belongs to the Congo-kordo fanian 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 or granary, depending on intonation. ‘pele o’ can mean “sorry” or “hello”.

As many as twenty 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) maybe 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 worshippers of a deity are referred to as his children. There are three gods who are known to all. Olorun (sky God) who is also known as the Creator, the high god. Another god is ogun (god of war and metal working) he is considered as one of the most important deities. Shango or Sango is the deity that creates thunder.

The Yoruba who practice other religions are divided about evenly between Muslims and Christians, nearly all Yoruba still observe annual festivals and other traditional religious practices.

The Yoruba oral tradition includes praise poems tongue twisters, hundreds of prose narratives and riddles and thousands of proverbs. Yoruba music includes war songs and work songs. These usually follow a “call and response” pattern between a leader and a chorus. Rhythm is provided by drums, iron gongs, cymbals, rattles and hand clapping. perhaps the most interesting musical instrument is the “talking drum”. The talking drum features an hour glass shape head, altering the drum’s pitch.

These are some popular Yoruba cultural festivals in Nigeria. Eyo festival, Igogo festival, Lagos Black Heritage, Ojude Oba festival, Olojo festival, Osun-Osogbo festival, Oro festival, Gelede and Sango festival.

Every Yoruba is born into a clan whose members are descended from a common ancestor. Descendants 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, while 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, t 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.  However, wives compete to gain additional favours for their children. The father is strict and distant often, he sees little of his children. However, as they grow older, they usually grow apart because of quarrels over possession.

Traditional clothing is still worn on important occasions and in rural areas. It is very colourful and elaborate. The traditional fabrics are 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 cloth around their waists. A third cloth maybe worn over the shoulder as a shawl over a loose-fitting, short -sleeved blouse. A larger cloth serves as a wrap-around skirt.

The Yoruba enjoy trading. Huge markets with over a thousand sellers are common. Trade in food stuffs 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.

Yoruba (like other Nigerians) in some areas participate in wrestling and soccer. 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, wood carving, leather and bead working and metal working. 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 dress makers. Floor mats and mats 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, carrying and storing liquids.

To end it here, wood carvers all of whom are men, carve masks and figurines as well as mortars, pestles and bowls. Some Yoruba wood carvers also work in ivory and stone. Blacksmith work both in iron and brass to create ivories pans cooking utensils etc.



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