Greeting through prostration and kneeling down in Yoruba

Culture in simple terms is a way of life of a particular group of people as regards their lifestyle, mode of dressing, reasoning, eating etc. Nigeria is a country with diverse ethnicity each with its unique culture which differs from one another. And as culture would have it, respect is a phenomenon much associated with the African continent as a whole and more particularly with the Yoruba people. Have you ever offered a handshake to a Yoruba elderly man and he probably looks at you with contempt? You are at it if your African mother, a Yoruba woman especially seems to be there at the moment. She would most likely dish out a knock on your head, which would make you remember the right thing to do.

The history of the Yoruba people dates back to centuries ago. They were a people who descended from their forefather, Oduduwa who is said to have migrated from the ancient city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Oduduwa’s father and most other Arabian relatives were Muslims but he was an idol worshipper. Due to this, they revolted against him and he had to flee. He headed to Ile-Ife, an old township of Western Nigeria. As Oduduwa began to procreate, the Yoruba race began to expand and they formed peoples and languages. 

Among them are; the Ijebu, Ijesha, Ondo, Ilaje, Ketu etc. They became kings and ruled in all these towns and therefore spread through the surface of the present Yoruba land in Western Nigeria. Successors after them always accord respect and pay homage to their forefathers. Therefore, respect is a phenomenon that is very much associated with the Yoruba, it is an important part of the Yoruba culture. It is an integral element of its tradition, which is passed down to the next generation and is the major reason why orderliness remains indelible in Yoruba culture.

Respect is a societal norm that is earned automatically in Yoruba society and can be demanded when deemed necessary. Although one would expect respect to be a matter of choice, it is not always completely so with the Yoruba people, as respect can and will be demanded by an older person under certain circumstances.

The Yorubas use the letter ‘e’ pronounced similarly with the phonetic of the first letter ‘e’ in elephant to show respect while addressing someone older (it’s also used while addressing two or more people at once, irrespective of their age). Yoruba boys also prostrate themselves while the girls kneel while attempting to greet an older person. Respect can also be shown through putting one’s hand behind his/her back and respectfully bowing of the head a little while being addressed by an older person.

Respect is further demonstrated in other forms as it is a known attribute of the Yoruba to address an older person with a sort of honorific. For instance ‘boda’, an adapted form of the English word ‘brother’ is used when addressing male superiors while ‘auntie’ is used for females. While it is normal and common practice for the majority of other ethnic groups in Nigeria to address superiors with a title or honorific showing seniority especially when the age gap is a lot, in the case of the Yoruba people, it is far beyond that. Among the Yoruba people, take for instance there is no presumed age margin to earn respect from someone younger. Sometimes, the margin could be as close as a year. Another example could be the fact that while other tribes do not seem to have a problem with name-calling their parents, it is frowned at among the Yoruba people and will only be done as a joke.

Another aspect of Yoruba culture where respect is demanded is marriage. The Yoruba people demand respect usually from the wife. A wife is required to address her in-laws (irrespective of age margin or exposure) with an honorific showing they are superior to her. She is also expected to accord them with the same preferential treatment she might use with her children. To support this notion the Yoruba have a proverb that literally means there is no in-law too small or too little to be accorded respect.

Respect is also demanded by the Yoruba even during seemingly harmless conversations. While an elderly person might choose to speak to a younger person, it is wrong for the younger person to speak without being spoken to unless so indicated by the elderly person. It is more to this point when there is a gathering of elderly people. It is considered extremely rude for a younger person to speak in such a gathering unless expressly addressed by an elder or in some cases if the younger person is granted permission by the elders. A younger person is also not allowed to say a proverb while an elderly person is present. If it is immensely important for the younger person to use a proverb in the presence of an elder person, he must ask for permission from the elder person and immediately apologize afterwards to the elderly person. Such is the way of the Yoruba.

Due to the influence of western culture, the majority of these important aspects of the Yoruba tradition that gave rise to peace and orderliness are gradually eroding. In as much as that is true, the Yoruba people still imbibe this character of respect and try their utmost to make sure that it is passed on to their offspring as respect is an important and integral aspect of their way of life.

Oluwatimileyin Emmanuel

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