Yoruba People, Culture and Language

Yoruba people are a West African ethnic group and one of the three largest ethnic groups in Nigeria. They also inhabit parts of Benin and Togo, and constitute more than 46 million people in Africa

Yoruba culture is made up of cultural philosophy, religion and folktales, embodied in Ifa divination

Often considered as one of Nigeria’s most educated, the Yoruba people are unique with rich cultural heritage, language, and religion. They are native to one of the three major languages in Nigeria and are also found in West African countries such as Togo, Ghana, and the Republic of Benin. Currently, they have a rising number in America, Brazil, Canada, and Ivory Coast, among other countries.

The people, who are also famous as Iran Yoruba, Omo Oduduwa, and Omo Kaaaro-oojiire, have vast cultures, languages, and dialects. Here is explicit information about the history, language, food, attires, marriage custom, and different rites of the Yorubas.

The History of the Yoruba People Links to Ile-Ife and Oduduwa

The birth of the Yoruba kingdom is believed to come through Oduduwa in 2 different tales. In one of the stories, it is believed that the people’s birth started in Ile-Ife, a town in present-day Oyo State, which was initially known as where humans were created. In this story, it is believed that Oduduwa, who is a divinity, had children who spread across places outside Ile-Ife.

When they succeeded in conquering towns, they gained leadership, and those towns became other Yoruba towns in Southern Nigeria and Western Africa. The other story of the history of the Yoruba people is tied to the earliest religion of the people. This account claims that the Olodumare (the creator) sent Oduduwa to earth, which at that time, was covered in water.

He would then form humankind with the clay of Ile-Ife after he was given a chicken and sand. The sand, which is one of the significant parts of this myth, is believed to have fallen off the hand of Oduduwa to later create a hill in the waters that would give birth to the extension of the Yoruba land.

According to this account, Oduduwa was also given a palm kernel that grew into a tree with sixteen limbs that represent the foremost 16 kingdoms of the Yoruba people. The Kingdoms will rise to become a crucial part of the history of the growth of the Yorubaland that add to its current population of more than 50 million people within and outside Africa.

The Yoruba People are Believed to Have Migrated From Egypt

Yoruba people
Yoruba king and status of Egypt’s King Tut

Several documentations lead to a conclusion that the ancient Yoruba people may have moved from Egypt to Yorubaland. This claim is laid in the story that the earliest Egyptians in the BC were Nubians and black. Furthermore, the Awujale of Ijebuland has given proof to this claim putting side by side the similarity of the Nubians and Yorubas in terms of language, body, coronation rituals, arts, and burial customs.

It has further been recorded that many cultures of the Yoruba people have their roots in Egypt. Based on this tale, the Yorubas migrated from Egypt due to war and settled mainly in Ode Itsekiri and Ile-Ife. According to another account, the Yoruba people were visitors in Nigeria around the 2000BC and 500BC due to the Nok culture. Later, they were peacefully led by king Oduduwa to settle in Ile-Ife.

How People From Other Ethnicities Added to The Extensive Growth of Yoruba

Although there are different accounts of how the Yoruba people started to exist, there is a similarity that other people settled in the land. It has been proven through documentation that the Yorubaland had one of the highest populations in Nigeria before colonization. This population has continued to the present time, with Yorubaland such as Lagos (Eko) having the second-highest population in Africa.

Based on accounts, many settlers in the Yorubaland included people from Arabia. However, their number would later decline in the 16th century due to conflict with the Fulani, who succeeded in pushing them to the south. At present, the Yoruba people are found in different countries as indigenes and as settlers, with a larger number being native to southern Nigeria.

Here are the places Yoruba people are found and their population

Major areas

  • Nigeria: 42.5 million population
  • Benin: 1.6 million people
  • Brazil: Allegedly, more than 1 million speakers
  • Togo: more than 300,000 people
  • Ghana: Above 500,000 people

Some regions where Yorubas are found in minority 

  • United States: more than 190,000 people
  • Ivory Coast: population that is above 120,000
  • Niger: 78,000 people
  • Burkina Faso: about 78,000
  • Equatorial Guinea: above 60,000 people
  • Italy: 57,000 people

The Yoruba Language

Based on several opinions, the Yoruba language belongs to the Bantu family. However, the language falls under the Niger-Congo family language under the subgroup of The Atlantic Congo languages –  the largest demonstrated family of languages in Africa. Under the Atlantic Congo, the language belongs to the Volta-Congo sub and down to the Edekiri languages – a group Yoruba language directly falls under.

The language is native to Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. There are also dialects of the language in Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia. Its vocabulary is further used in the Afro-Brazillia religion called Candomble. Yoruba has a variety of dialects, including the following:

North-West Yoruba (NWY)

  • Egba dialect: found in the central part of Ogun State
  • Ibadan: found in Ibadan, the most populous city in Oyo State
  • Yewa: it’s a subgroup of Yoruba found in Ogun West Senatorial District of Ogun State
  • Oyo: found in Oyo State
  • Lagos/Eko: Native to Lagos State

Nort-East Yoruba (NEY)

  • Yagba: this variety of the Yoruba language is found in Yagba West Local Government Area of Kogi State
  • Owe: spoken by Owe people of Kabba in Kogi State of North Central
  • Ijumu: found in Kogi State
  • Oworo: It is a dialect of Yoruba that is found in the Oworo district of Lokoja in Kogi State
  • Gbede: there are 7 Gbede towns that speak the dialect of the Yoruba language. They include Ayegugle Gbede and Ayetoro Gbded of Kogi State.
  • Oworo: another Yoruba dialect of Oworo District in Lokoja, Kogi State

Central Yoruba (CY)

  • Igbomina: this dialect of Yoruba is also known as Igbinna, and it’s spoken in Kwara State and Osun State
  • Ijesha: Also known as Ijesha on Osun State
  • Ife: The dialect of the Yoruba language is found in Ile-Ife of Osun State
  • Ekiti: It’s one of the largest sub-groups of Yoruba  as found in Ekiti state
  • Efon: it’s a Local Government in Ekiti State that speak the Efon dialect of one of the most popular languages in Africa
  • Akure: this dialect has above 480,000 speakers in Ondo State
  • Akoko: The speakers of this subgroup are in Ondo and Edo States

South-West Yoruba

  • Ketu: it is spoken by the Ketu people of the Republic of Benin
  • Awori: a tribe of the Yoruba people that is spoken in Ogun and Lagos States
  • Sakete: this dialect is native to the people of the Plateau Department of the Republic of Benin
  • Ife (Togo): it is a Yoruba dialect that is spoken in Togo, Benin, and Ghana
  • Idasha: part of the Egba subgroup of the Yoruba language, and it is also native to Benin in the Collines Department
  • Ipokia/Anago: these descendants of the Yoruba dialect are homeowners of the Ipokia Local Government of Ogun State

South-East Yoruba

  • Ikale: also known as Okitipupa, the dialect of Yoruba, is found in Okitipupa and Irele Local Governments of Ondo State.
  • Ilaje: the sub-tribe of the Yoruba language is native to the Ilaje Local Government of Ondo State
  • Ondo City: the Ondo dialect is native to the people of Ondo West Local Government and Ondo East Local Government of Ondo State
  • Owo: the variety of this Yoruba dialect is spoken by the people of Owo Local Government of Ondo State
  • Idanre: a dialect of Yorub spoken in Idanre Local Governemner of Ondo State
  • Remo: speakers of the dialect are mainly in Sagamu or Ishagamu of Ogun State
  • Ijebu: mainly spoken in Ogun State and minority speakers in a part of Lagos State

Although these dialects fall under the Yoruba language, there are slight differences in some words and pronunciation. There is, however, a standard Yoruba which is also known as literary Yoruba. This is the aspect of the language that is learned in school and used in the media.

The language’s writing system is the Latin alphabet, and it further adopts the use of diacritics such as a dot below an alphabet. Since the west African language is tonal, diacritics that show tones are often used in the language’s orthography. They include the high tone, low tone, and mid-tone. Sometimes when these tones are misplaced, the meaning of a word automatically changes.

What To Know About The Yoruba Culture

The people have one of the largest populations in Africa, and the culture of the Yoruba is mostly arguably considered the most interesting and well preserved. The culture of the people incorporates arts, dance, music, marriage, death, and religion amidst others. Here’s what you should know.

They Have Some of The Most Popular Cuisines in Nigeria

Yoruba people
moi-moi, Amala and ewedu; pounded yam, and akara

The Yoruba people are famous for having some of the popular dishes in Nigeria. Their major food includes:

Moi Moi

Also known as moin-moin, this food is made out of black-eyed beans or honey beans. It is a steamed bean pudding that can be done in various ways. Traditionally, it is made in a native leaf. However, this popular food in many African countries can be made in nylons, tin, and most recently, china plates.

Akara (bean cake)

This is similar to the Moi Moi. However, the akara, also known as street food, is fried instead of steaming it. The dish made out of beans is popular in West Africa and South America.

Traditionally and historically, Akara was solely made when a person from 70 and above dies. The dish will be made to be distributed in the neighborhood of the deceased. It was also historically made to mark the victory of warriors.

Efo riro

This is a soup made out of vegetables. It is usually mixed with ingredients such as stockfish, crayfish, meat, palm oil, onion, and seasonings. Traditionally, the soup is eaten with swallow such as eba, amala, and pounded yam. Most recently, however, the soup is eaten with white rice, boiled yam, and boiled plantain.

Ewedu 

The Yoruba native soup is also known as molokhia or jute. It can be mixed with another native soup called gbegiri or buka stew to eat swallow, mostly amala.

Pounded Yam (Iyan)

Pounded yam is traditional to many cultures in Nigeria that include the Igbo people and Yoruba. This meal is made from yam and turned to swallow.

Amala

This native Yoruba food is made out of yam or cassava and turned into a swallow. This meal is one of the most popular foods of the Yoruba people. On many occasions in Nigeria, the meal mostly has its way among the top foods. It has also been adopted to be eaten by people of different cultures within and outside Nigeria.

Naming Custom is Knitted in Yoruba People

One of the most vital things about humans in the Yoruba culture is naming a child after birth. This is usually done a week after a child is born. It is believed in the culture that any name that one bears can influence their entire life, behavior, and success.

The names of these children can be given based on the features of the child or the circumstance surrounding the birth of a child. For instance, a name such as Babatunde is given to male children believed to have been a reincarnation of another family member, mostly deceased. The name means “Father returns” or “the father has returned.”

In addition to this, the Yorubas can show the status of parents through the names of children. For instance, the name with the prefix Ade (crown) shows royalty or nobility. Such names include Adeola (crown of wealth), Adeolu (the Crown of God), and Adebisi (the crown, king, or royalty has produced more).

Although giving names in Yoruba culture is mainly done by the child’s father, it can also be given by the child’s mother, grandparents, or relatives. It is as such that many people belonging to the ethnicity can have more than one tribal name.

Yoruba names are Classified into Five Categories 

1. Yoruba Destiny names (Orúko Àmútọ̀runwá): names believed to be brought from heaven or gotten from religion. They include:

  • Yewande (mother has returned)
  • Ajayi (born face-down)
  • Dada (father)
  • Kehinde (the second-born of the twins)
  • Taiwo (the first twin to taste the world).

2. Yoruba Acquired names (Orúkọ Àbísọ): they include

  • Omotayo (a child of joy)
  • Faderera (one who uses the crown to calm her soul)
  • Ayodele (joy comes home)
  • Omotola (child is wealth, or child is more than wealth)
  • Morenike (I have someone to cherish)
  • Olarinde (wealth has come or greatness has come)

3. Orúkọ Oríkì: names given as tribute and accolade. Some of these names include

  • Ishola (a store of wealth)
  • Alake (one to be honored)
  • Amope (one whose knowledge is complete)
  • Adigun (righteous)
  • Abeke (we begged for her to caress her)
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4. Orúkọ Àbíkú: predestined names to children who are believed to be born only to die and caused grieve to their parents. Such names include

  • Kosoko (No hoes to bury this)
  • Kasimawoo (let’s wait and see if this child will live long)
  • Durotimi (wait with me)

4. Orukọ Ìnagijẹ: epithetic names (based on a child’s characteristics). They include:

  • Awelewa (a beautiful one, born in beauty)
  • Akeju (over pampered)
  • Ajisafe (one who wakes up to make fashion)

Yoruba Laws

Ofin, which means law in Yoruba, has been in existence for as long as the origin of the Yoruba people. The law first operates based on the existence of God, known as Olodumare. It is believed that the Oludumare has sealed in the heart of men the way to live, which is known as ifa-aya (oracle of the heart). It is believed that what Olodumare seals can help a man live a pleasing, joyful, and fulfilled life.

In a typical Yoruba community, the law that guards morals is one of the most important. This law is against stealing, cheating, telling lies, and being wicked to another. As such, the people have some proverbs to serve as a reminder. They include:

  • Eke o sunwon ara eni – Falsehood is not right for one
  • B’eniyan ba nyo’le da, ohun buburu a maa yo won se – If anyone surreptitiously breaks a covenant, ills covertly will befall him.

The elders of Yorubaland are saddled with the responsibility of seeing that laws are not broken, and when they do, these elites primarily serve as resolute. The people back this with a proverb: “agba kii wa l’oja, k’ori omo titun wo (elders in the market will never allow a newborn baby’s head to go astray).

Yoruba Marriage Rites

Marriage is an essential aspect of the lives of the Ọmọ Odùduwà. Families are formed through marriages, and generations are extended. There are several steps to follow before one traditionally becomes married in a typical Yoruba community. They include the following stages:

Stage 1: Identify the woman

This stage is the identification of the woman a man intends to marry, which is followed by a courtship. Although the man finds the woman of his choice in most cases, it is not totally out of place for him to ask his parents to help him find a good woman. Other family members or friends may also recommend a woman, but it is not necessarily a must to marry her.

Stage 2: Invite the middleman to make findings of the woman

After the man successfully finds himself a woman, he involves his friends or a mutual friend to approach her on his behalf. This middleman, traditionally known as alarina, meets the woman to make the intention of the man who wishes to marry her known. Also, the middleman can make inquiries about the woman and her background before taking the step of meeting her parents formally.

Stage 3: Visit the woman’s parents and pay the bride price

Parents from both the intending couple’s side should be informed about the intention of their children. In this case, the man’s parents formally visit the woman’s parent to make the intention of their child known through introduction (mo mi mo e – know me and let me know you).

The woman’s family presents the Eru Iyawo (bride’s list) to the groom and his parents before the traditional engagement. The list often contains kola nut, palm oil, yam, bride price (owo ori), and alligator pepper, among other things.

Stage 4: Traditional engagement ceremony

This is the formal traditional wedding ceremony in the presence of people to serve as witnesses. The ceremony is usually anchored by two people – one from the bride’s family (Alaga Ijoko – female) and one from the groom’s family (Alaga Iduro – male).

Stage 5: Seal the marriage under one’s religion

Although the traditional marriage traditionally binds a Yoruba couple as one, a further step can be taken depending on one’s religious beliefs. For instance, a Christian couple will head to the church to become married in the Christian way, while a Muslim could head to be joined in the presence of Allah in the Mosque.

The couple can also decide to have a court wedding by signing the marriage act. The Nigerian government officially recognizes this marriage as proof of a union between a man and a woman. This type of marriage is independent of one’s religious beliefs.

Music and Dance of the Yoruba People

The long-established form of music of the Yorubas is unique for its extensive use of drums of different sorts. These drums belong to 4 different families: the Dundun/Gangan family, Sakara family, Gbedu family, and Bata family. The drums are used for different genres of music that include afrobeat, juju, and fuji, among others.

In the ancient tradition of the people in terms of music, different drums are played for different occasions, and not everyone is allowed to dance to some tunes. For instance, the Gbedu family of drums (large drum) was only used by secret fraternities and royal courts. As part of the people’s history, only the Oba had the right to dance to the beats of the drum. Anyone else who dances to the tune can be arrested.

Apart from drums, the people verbalize their music in different tones and rhythms. In the modern era, the Yorubas have incorporated different genres and beats that have both traditional and western elements. Major artists who have used Yoruba traditional music include King Sunny Ade (known for juju music) and Shina Peters (juju musician). The incorporation of the Yoruba style of music has been adopted by many musicians of Yoruba and non-Yoruba roots.

Many cultures have adopted their music styles, such as Trinidad, Lukumi religious traditions, Brazil’s Capoeira, and Cuba’s music. Concerning dance, the Yoruba people have different forms of dance. One of the most popular is the Bata Dance which is danced to the Bata drums. The dance is customarily dedicated to the god of thunder, Sango. Other dances include Obitun dance, Takasufe, and Shakabubu.

Religious Beliefs of the Yoruba People

One of the unique things about the Yoruba people is their ability to be diversified in terms of religion. They are tagged as one of the most alternative religions in Africa. The people practice several religions, including their traditional religion, Christianity, and Islam. Regarding Islam, the South Western people of Nigeria are primarily practicing the Sunni Islam of the Maliki school of law.

In terms of Christianity, on the other hand, the people who are the foremost people to have come in contact with Christianity in West Africa belong to different denominations. The Yorubas were mostly practicing their traditional religion, reportedly older than Christianity and Islam. Among the popular beliefs of the people in the aspect of religion is the concept of Orisa (Orisha), which are spirits that play a vital role in the people’s spirituality.

Some Orisas are the god of thunder, fire, justice, and lightning (Jakuta/Sango), god of metal, war, and victory (Ogun), and god of oracle (Orunmila).

Other Orishas include:

  • Obatala: Sky father and the creator of the human body
  • Aganju: Often regarded as the Shango’s brother
  • Yemoja: Water spirit and the mother of all Orishas
  • Oshoosi: regarded as the spirit for hunt, wealth, animals, and forests

The religion of the people believes in the existence of a supreme being, God, who has three manifestations known as Olorun (King of Heavens, Gods, Sky, and the Universe); Olodumare (almighty), and Olofin (ruler of the earth). Although there is an acceptance of other religions over time, the people have not left their traditional beliefs. Some of these beliefs are practiced in different countries like the United States, Portugal, and Brazil.

In addition, some religious beliefs of the Yorubas are being practiced by notable celebrities such as American rapper Sheyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph who is famous as 21 Savage, a believer of Ifa. Similarly, American singer Beyonce, born into a Christian family, has reverenced Oshun (Osun), the goddess of fertility, love, motherhood, order, and prosperity in many scenarios such as Hold Up song, dressing, and performance that include at the Grammys.

Yoruba Attire Is Quite Vast

The Omo Ooduwa have different forms of dressing for men and women. In recent times, the traditional dressing of the people has been adopted by Nigerians from different ethnicities. Here are some Yoruba cultural attires:

  • Iro and Buba (loose blouse and wrapper): Used by women
  • Buba ati kembe (loose blouse for men with baggy trousers)
  • Agbada (loose garment): culturally used by men
  • Soro (Slim trouser most worn with agbada): traditionally used by men
  • Gele (headscarf): used by women
  • Adire (textile used to make cloth)
  • Aso-oke (handwoven material used to make cloth or head)

Yoruba Burial Rites 

Due to the different religious beliefs of the Yoruba people, there are several forms of burial rites. For instance, the people who belong to the Islamic religion bury their dead the same day of their death while Christians live it for a more extended period. In the tradition of the people, however, burial rites come in several forms for men, women, and children.

This is evident in the case of Iremoje, a burial rite that started with Ogun, a deity. It was passed to his followers, who are hunters. The rite allows men to chant at the deceased’s grave for seven days. Another ceremony, isipa ode, is held to send the dead with the aim of having his spirit accepted by the spirits of co-hunters and without troubling his family and colleagues. The ceremony is only attended by men.

For women, the Isaaro burial rite is important in the culture of the Yoruba people. It is often done to celebrate the lives lived by aged women after they pass away. The ceremony is headed by the Alagbaa (chief head of masquerades), and it is most famous with the people of Oyo. Traditionally, if this ceremony is not held for older deceased women, their souls may not find a good rest, or the family may face mysterious calamity.

One of the most notable burial rites in the culture is the Isinku. This is similar to the Isaaro. However, it is not limited to gender but marks a celebration of life to any deceased person who has reached old age. In addition, there’ll be a ceremony that lasts seven days to be held in the name of the dead person. The ritual (etutu) sends one into the world of the spirits to join their ancestors. In this form of burial, many families spend a good fortune to have people merry.

For this reason, many Yorubas have been able to make huge burial ceremonies that turn out to be among the most expensive funerals in Nigeria. In the broader sense, as regards dead and funeral in the culture of the Yoruba people, there’s a general notion that the spirit of the dead does not fade but will find a way of returning to earth in the form of a baby to be born within the family.

The Yoruba People are Unique for Having the Highest Number of Twins in the World

Based on a study in the 1970s that involved a British gynecologist, it was concluded that out of about 1000 births of twins, about 50 are in the Yorubaland in Nigeria. According to many sources, this may result from certain foods such as a special yam, okra leaf stew, and amala. Although this claim of food has not been scientifically proven, it is an idea held closely by the people.

In ancient times, twins (Ibeji) were sacrificed. However, in the progression of time, they are seen as blessings and can bring prosperity, joy, and happiness into a home. Similarly, they can also bring disaster, disease, or death. Twins are often called Taiwo (the firstborn twin) and Kehinde (the second-born twin). Historically, twins are presented to the Babalawo (father of the mysteries) or the Ifa Priest three days after their birth to cast an evil spirit from the children.

The priest will dedicate them to the Orisha Ibeji god (supreme spiritual creator of twins), after which instructions will be given to the mother. Customarily, twins share the same soul, and in a situation where one dies, the life of the other may be distorted. Hence, the living twin will be taken to the Babalawo for protection. An image of the deceased will be carved and kept in the home.

In conclusion, Yoruba people have many of their cultures and traditions rooted in them and are passed to generations. Some of these cultures include the aspect of greetings and respect. Nonetheless, their traditional religion has been neglected by a number, yet has found its way to becoming a fast-growing religion, especially in Cuba, Brazil, Portugal, and America.

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