ASPECTS OF YORUBA ORAL TRADITION: IMPORTANCE, RICHNESS AND LIMITS IN THE CONTEXT OF UNFREEDOM
Segun Gbadegesin, Ph.D
The distinctive feature of most, if not all, of literary production is that they were once expressed and transmitted orally. This is true of the “Sermon on the Mount” as it is of Ifa Divination Poetry. It is true of the (sources of) family history of many modern (Euro-American) families as it is true of African communities. An oral tradition exists where the oral transmission of ideas, beliefs and values predominates, and its significance as a means of understanding the life of a people, whether in literate or non-literate cultures, cannot be over-emphasized. In the case of the former, it is probably not obvious. Yet it is true that not every aspect of a people’s history can be recorded. It may also be true that some of the most interesting aspects of history may be overlooked by writers of history even in literate societies. In such cases, we must depend on the chroniclers of the community. In the case of predominantly oral cultures, oral tradition is an indispensable source of history, indicator of deep thought, and transmitter of cultural and religious values. It is through the ocean of the oral tradition of a non-literate culture that we explore their historical being and their contribution to the philosophic world. Those who have despised the African contribution to the world of culture have failed to recognize, as Du Bois did, that as late as the fifteenth century, “African and Asiatic civilizations far outstripped that of Europe”(Du Bois, 1965, p.44). It is in the spirit of Du Bois’s observations that I would like to discuss some aspects of Yoruba oral tradition.
What is oral tradition?
When, in the absence of, or as a complement to writing, the history of a people is (re)constructed through oral testimonies and cultural data supplied by individuals or groups, and this serves as a basis for future reconstruction which is also based on oral transmission, we have an approach to historical knowledge which has been aptly termed oral tradition. Basically, the term means the transmission of facts, values and fiction through oral means. It would not be termed “tradition”, however, if it were just a momentary and temporary method of approach to historical knowledge. It is a tradition simply because it is the method that persists, endures and is stable. The term is therefore one that is used by the observer- the scholar- to refer to the source of his/her knowledge of a people’s history and culture. The griots’ chronicle of events, the sages’ myths, legends, cosmological ideas and proverbs, the storytellers’ folktales and the verbal artists’ riddles and tongue twisters, are the constituents of a people’s cultural data. When used adequately, the data provide knowledge that is, to a large extent, reliable and dependable, based as it is, on the tradition of knowing that has been relied upon by the people for generations. It is not all aspects of oral tradition that are originally motivated by the urge to record history. Folktales, proverbs, songs and chants may serve the people primarily as means of entertainment and expressing their ideas of ultimate reality and meaning, though these forms may also serve scholars as a means of understanding their history. The most important defining features of oral tradition are its oral nature and the fact that it is a medium for cultural continuity..
Language, Oral tradition and Yoruba Identity
The matter of defining Yoruba identity in terms of oral tradition appears to present a puzzle. A discussion of Yoruba oral tradition requires an understanding of the history and identity of the Yoruba. For to identify an oral tradition as Yoruba, we need to know who the Yoruba are. However, our knowledge of Yoruba history is also derived from oral tradition, and Yoruba identity is owed to the combined force of its past history and contemporary realities. To put it in another way, we may identify Yoruba oral tradition only if we are able to identify the Yoruba; but our knowledge of Yoruba identity is derived from its oral tradition. We get a sense of Yoruba history, culture and identity, from its historical and mythical legends, folktales and verbal arts. This is how it ought to be, in virtue of the fact that oral tradition is used to construct history, legitimize cultural values and pass judgement on contemporary political realities. The vehicle of thought common to all these usages is language and it may be the candidate for resolving our puzzle. If our knowledge of Yoruba history and identity is derived from its oral tradition, and that oral tradition is transmitted in a language that is uniquely identifiable with the Yoruba people, it would seem that, for the purpose of identifying them, we may use their language. Of course, there is more to identity than language. An individual may choose to not identify with a group of people who speak same language with him/her. However, in the particular case that interests us here, it seems that we have to grant a linguistic basis for Yoruba identity if we attend to the elements of their oral tradition. I will now go on to discuss aspects of Yoruba oral tradition, focussing on legends, myths and proverbs, their defining features, social functions, philosophical relevance and limits in the context of unfreedom in which the Yoruba now find themselves.
These stories about the exploits of traditional heroes embody the main historic records of a people. They may take the form of cosmogonic myths concerning the origin of the people, or historical accounts of migration and conquest of one group by another. In either case, they serve the function of providing a basis for communal identity and solidarity. The legend of Oduduwa serves these purposes effectively for the Yoruba.
Oduduwa is the legendary progenitor of the Yoruba. There are two variants of the story of how he achieved this feat. The first is cosmogonic, the second, political. The cosmogonic version also has two variants. According to the first variant of the cosmogonic myth, Orisanla (Obatala) was the arch-divinity who was chosen by Olodumare, the supreme deity to create a solid land out of the primordial water that constituted the earth and of populating the land with human beings. He descended from heaven on a chain, carrying a small snail shell full of earth, palm kernels and a five-toed chicken. He was to empty the content of the snail shell on the water after placing some pieces of iron on it, and then to place the chicken on the earth to spread it over the promirdial water. According to the first version of the story, Obatala completed this task to the satisfaction of Olodumare. He was then given the task of making the physical body of human beings after which Olodumare will give them the breath of life. He also completed this task and this is why he has the title of “obarisa” the king of orisas. The other variant of the cosmogonic myth does not credit Obatala with the completion of the task. While it concedes that Obatala was given the task, it avers that Obatala got drunk even before he got to the earth and he was unable to do the job. Olodumare got worried when he did not return on time, and he had to send Oduduwa to find out what was going on. When Oduduwa found Obatala drunk, he simply took over the task and completed it. He created land. The spot on which he landed from heaven and which he redeemed from water to become land is called Ile-Ife and is now considered the sacred and spiritual home of the Yoruba. Obatala was embarrased when he woke up and, due to this experience, he made it a taboo for any of his devotees to drink palm wine. Olodumare forgave him and gave him the responsibility of moulding the physical bodies of human beings. The making of land is a symbolic reference to the founding of the Yoruba kingdoms and this is why Oduduwa is credited with that achievement (Idowu, 1962).
According to the second version of the myth, however, there was a pre-existing civilization at Ile-Ife prior to its invasion by a group led by Oduduwa. This group came from the east, where Oduduwa and his group had been persecuted on the basis of religious differences. They came to Ile-Ife and fought and conquered the pre-existing Igbo (unrelated to the present Igbo) inhabitants led by Oreluere. Obviously, there is a connection between the two versions of the story. The political one may be the authentic story of the founding of Ife kingdom through conquest. However, the myth of creation lends it a legitimacy that is denied by the conquest story; just as it appears that it is lent some credence by the fact that, as a result of the embarrassment it caused their deity, the followers of Obatala are forbidden from taking palm wine. Indeed the second version of the cosmogonic myth also appears to foreshadow the political variant. The claim that Obatala got drunk and the task of creation had to be performed by Oduduwa already has some political coloration which is now explicit in the political version of the tradition.
These are stories which have elements of the sacred and divine in them. They serve the purpose of giving meaning to existence and ensuring that the community does not lose hold of its rationale for existence. As quasi-sacred stories, and in view of the purpose they serve, their tellers have to be true to the original story. This is not to deny variations from place to place and from time to time. This can be accounted for, in terms of individual creativity with regard to details, and in terms of the loss of memory that cannot be avoided in the circumstance. An important Yoruba myth with a philosophical significance is the Ayanmo myth which indicates belief in predestination. The belief in predestination is expressed in the concept of ori, and it seems to suggest that the Yoruba have some anxiety about human helplessness in certain situations. However, it also expresses the people’s conviction that human existence has meaning; that human beings are not on a purposeless mission in this world; that they have a mission to fulfill, and a message to deliver — which is the meaning of their existence — and that this mission has been fully endorsed by the creator. Whatever is [or is not] done by them should therefore be explained by appeal to this original mission. The concept of ori expresses this idea (Gbadegesin, 1984). Perhaps, it is their perception of the special place of the physical head to the existence of human beings which suggests to the Yoruba the idea that it must also have a spiritual dimension. Thus, the physical head is believed to symbolize or represent an inner head which is the bearer of a person’s destiny and which therefore is the remote controller of one’s endeavors in the world. It is this inner head which is referred to as ori-inu, or simply, ori .
Looking closely at the myth that is used to express the thought, it appears that the focus is on the explanation of success or failure in personal endeavors. The case of Oriseeku, Orilemere and Afuwape in Odu Ifa is clear on this. These three were about to begin their earth-bound journey from their pre-natal existence. The last rite to perform was the choice of ori (destiny). They had a warning from Orisa-nla to go straight to the house of Ajala without changing course. The first two did as they were told while Afuwape, the son of Orunmila decided to see his father before making a choice. It turned out to be a good decision because in his father’s house, he met two of his father’s divination priests who advised him to offer some sacrifice. He did, and the result was good for him. The other two were not assisted in their choice, but Afuwape was assisted because as a result of the sacrifice he performed, he had directions on what to do to receive favor from Ajala, the maker and custodian of inner heads. On their arrival in the world, the other two noticed that things were going well for Afuwape while they were having difficult times. They reacted with a song:
Emi o mo ‘bi olori n yan ‘ri o
M ba lo yan temi
N go mo bi Afuwape yan ‘ri o
M ba lo yan temi
I do not know where people with good destiny picked theirs
I would have picked mine there too
I do not know where Afuwape picked his good destiny
I would have gone there
To which Afuwape replied:
Eyin o mo ‘bi olori n yan ‘ri o
E ba lo yan t’eyin
Ibikan na la gbe yan ri o
Kadara o papo ni.
You do not know where good destiny is picked
You would have gone there for yours
We picked our destinies from the same source
Only their contents are not identical.
( For an application of this concept to a contemporary case, see Isokan Yoruba Magazine Vol. III, No. II Spring 1997)
This story raises a number of philosophical problems and how much attention was paid to these problems by the initiator of this idea is not now known. For instance, is there favoritism in the choice of destiny and if so, can it be justified? Can an unfavorable destiny be changed? How does the idea of destiny tie up with the idea of moral responsibility? (Gbadegesin, 1991) In spite of these questions, however, what can be assumed is that the story is an aid for the expression of a number of philosophical theses. First, it expresses the Yoruba pragmatic approach to morality. There is no hard and fast rule concerning rightness and wrongness and, in most cases, an individual must take a personal decision and follow it through. Though, people are still counselled by the elders, and there are certain kinds of behavior that are considered wrong (wanton destruction of life), in certain cases, the situation determines what is right to do. This is what happens in the case of Afuwape who decided to violate the instruction of the orisa. Second, generosity pays in the end. As the saying goes, “Igba olore ki i fo” (The calabash of the generous person never breaks). Afuwape was generous with his possessions and it paid off in the end. The importance of sacrifice in Yoruba traditional religion can be recognized by an ardent observer. But, though sacrifice is supposedly for the purpose of pleasing the gods, the sages of the group also know that it is principlally a “means of making one’s close associates taste the fruits of one’s labour and thereby receiving their blessing and support in whatever one wants to do…. Sacrifice can…be viewed as a means of uniting people and strengthening their bonds of relationship and association (Abimbola, 1975, p. 27). Finally, we are here on a mission: to deliver a message. Therefore we are not on our own. This assurrance is expected to provide some solace to the weary. This is one of the points powerfully expressed by Wole Soyinka in The Strong Breed.
These are stories which have no explanatory or historical purposes to serve. They are told as forms of entertainment, with emphasis on the creative and imaginative talents of the artist. Because they are forms of entertainment, they occur in more relaxed atmospheres, and there is no age limit for narrators. A fable could be a dilemma tale or a trickster tale and it may have human or animal characters. It might also perform some moral functions, though this need not be its primary focus. Due to their belief in spiritual forces and supernatural powers, many Yoruba fables involve elements of the supernatural. For instance, in the story of Oro Iroko (Iroko Tree Demon), the son of a farmer was trapped on a tree which was being maliciously cut by a demon. The boy had three magic gourds in his pocket. Each time the demon was about to succeed in cutting the tree, the boy would throw one gourd and the tree would be joined together again. After he had thrown the last magic gourd, he seemed to be at the mercy of the demon. Then he remembered the flute that his father had given him. He blew it loud and sang as follows:
Okemo kerewu, aja ode
The one who cuts in pieces: hunter’s dog
Osopaka gbe won mi, aja ode
The one who swallows at an instant: hunter’s dog
Ogbale gbarawe, aja ode
The one who cleans like a broom: hunter’s dog
Iya nje mi lehin re o, aja ode
I am suffering in your absence: hunter’s dog
At the sound of the flute, all his dogs reported and devoured the demon.
In the Yoruba culture, proverbs are appreciated as the vehicle for words. As one proverb on proverbs puts it: proverbs are the horses for words, for when words are lost, we use proverbs to seek them out. The value placed on proverbs extends to those individuals who are well-skilled in their use. They are revered in the community because they have the ability to get to the heart of a matter through the use of appropriate proverbs. Since proverbs are not immutable, and since they have times and contexts of application, it is important for a skilful verbal artist to know the appropriate time and context for their use. There is what is called “asipa owe” or wrong proverb-making. A person who is able to detect “asipa owe” and come up with a counter proverb is also deserving of respect in the community. Take the following example:
Erin ki i fon ki omo re fon
(Mother elephant and baby elephant do not trumpet at the same time.) ( see Owomoyela, 1988)
This is used to discourage a person from enhancing his/her children’s image through his/her own status. For instance, a politician may be campaigning for an elective position while his son is also interested in a political career. The father’s opponent might discourage them with this proverb. However if the father is also well versed in proverbs, the appropriate response is
Fere ko pe meji ni
(Only if there is not more than one trumpet.)
The point of this response is that the first proverb is irrelevant in this situation because there are more than one position and the father and son have enough resources to compete successfully on their own individual merits.
That the Yoruba are generally pragmatic in their approach to ethics and moral issues is illustrated by their proverbs which may appear contradictory, but which actually are meant to indicate caution. Consider the following pair of proverbs on hard work:
Kira kita k’o mola, ka sise bi eru ko da nkankan
(Strenous laboring does not bring wealth; struggling like a slave does not eradicate poverty)
Ise loogun ise
(Work is the cure for poverty)
An adequate resolution of the apparent conflict here must take account of the fact that the Yoruba are generally against extremes in any direction. To work excessively in order to have wealth is to expose oneself to untimely death. This is what the first proverbs cautions against. On the other hand, to refuse to work is to expose oneself to incurable poverty. This is the point of the second proverb.
Some proverbs arise from observations of natural phenomena and/or human affairs. For instance:
Obe kan ki i mu ki o gbe eeku ara re
(No knife is so sharp that it is able to carve its own hilt.)
This proverb can be interpreted in two ways. First, it is impossible for a knife to carve its own hilt because it cannot cut anything without having a good hilt. Therefore, since it will have to have a hilt in order to cut anything, it cannot cut its own hilt. Second, even after it has got a hilt, however sharp a knife is, it cannot cut or scrape its own hilt. Another knife will have to be used for that purpose. The meaning of this is that however smart one is, one will still need other people to help one with important personal matters. One should therefore avoid arrogance.
While the Yoruba have moral standards regarding the dispensation of justice, they are also aware of the reality of human frailty and the corresponding partiality and injustice that can result. Two proverbs can be used to illustrate this apparent conflict:
A gb’ejo idi kan da, agba osika ni.
(A person who makes a judgement after hearing only one side of a case is a most wicked judge.)
On the other hand, they also know human nature for what it is:
Eniti ko ni baba ni’gbejo, bo ba ro ejo are, ebi ni i je.
( A person who has no mentor on the judgement throne will lose even if he has a clean and just case.)
cf: O da wa l’ejo, o da ‘mo e l’are
(He judged us guilty; but he judged his child innocent)
O f’omo e l’apa re’le And took his child home safely
Ko dun wa o, ejo te e da o dun wa
It doesn’t pain us; your judgment does n’t pain us
B’Olorun ko ba pa wa)
As long as God spares our lives)
Here we have a combination of moral realism and idealism with respect to justice. Each has its use in the Yoruba cultural belief system, a system which places emphasis on moderation in everything.
From the foregoing, it seems clear that various aspects of the oral tradition of the Yoruba are important for enriching the social and moral life of the people and ensuring the continuity of their culture. These are highly effective means of expressing the ideals and values of the communities, teaching young generations the history of their ancestors and helping them improve their self-awareness by giving them the information they need for understanding their identity. Yoruba oral poetry, with its various themes of love, life, praise and death, is especially relevant in this regard. A young child is introduced to the oriki (praise name) of his/her family right from birth, through constant repetition by the female members of the household, who also tease him/her about the significance of his/her birth and the distinguished history of his/her ancestors. At the same time, he/she is encouraged to uphold this tradition and contribute to its distinction. This, among others, is an important function of oral tradition and it is what has kept it alive among the Yoruba in particular, and Africans in general.
But these are trying times for Yoruba culture and its oral tradition. In the first place, the old sages who accept the responsibility of transmitting the culture, are transiting fast to the realm of the ancestors, victims of ill-designed policies by a government that has no interest in the welfare of its citizens. In the second place, the middle age folks, who benefitted from the good old days of Yorubaland, when the glory of Yoruba culture was exhibited for the world in the works of the Fagunwas, the Odunjos, the Ogundes, the Ladipos, the Ogunmolas, the Olatunjis and Isolas, are not now in any privileged position to help their own offsprings, due to a combination of economic, social and political reasons. How can you project a culture when you cannot even be sure of what to expect from a government that is afflicted by Odua-phobia, a government that is afraid of even its own shadow, and which finds threatening any move by Yoruba people to advance the interests of Odua descendants. About a year ago, a foundation was set up to serve the social, economic and cultural interests of our people. Today, its main architect is incarcerated, accused of treason! In the third place, the younger ones, who are expected to serve as the link between the past and the future, have greater problems of life to deal with. How many Yoruba youths are roaming the streets with no visible means of livelihood even when they have successfully made the efforts to acquire education and the skills that come with it? Can we justifiably blame them for any indifference to culture and tradition when their sense of self-esteem has been so badly brutalized?
The lesson of our present predicament is clear. We find ourselves in such a bad shape vis-a-vis the future of our culture because, as a people, our autonomy has been compromised for a long time. Is n’t it the case now that even the most prominent of our Kabiyesis are not free citizens? Can they make claims on the basis of their conscience without risking discipline from the boys in Khaki? Can the Arole Oodua travel out without permission from the representative of the Northern oligachy? In order therefore to bring back the glory of our culture, we have to struggle for genuine autonomy. Our forefathers knew this much when they pressed for a true federal union. They knew that a multi-national state cannot survive and prosper under a unitary system. Yet, since 1966, we have been running a unitary sytem of government. It is time we knew that an arrangement in which the lion is expected to serve as purse-keeper for the tiger is an inherently unstable and unpeaceful one.The two will be advised to hunt separately. There are lessons to learn from them.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The World and Africa New York: International Publishers, 1965 p.44
Isodore Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character and Continuity Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992
Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God In Yoruba Belief Longman: Nigeria 1962.
Segun Gbadegesin, “Destiny, Personality and the Ultimate Reality of Human Existence”, Ultimate Reality and Meaning, Vol 7 No. 3 1984 pp.173-188.
Segun Gbadegesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities New York: Lang Publishing, 1991.
Wande Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa UNESCO, 1975
Oyekan Owomoyela, A Ki I: Yoruba Proscriptive and Prescriptive Proverbs Lanham: University Press of America, 1988.