The 22 million Yoruba who live in southwestern Nigeria are one of the four major sociolinguistic groups of contemporary Nigeria. The others are the Igbo to the east, and the Hausa and Fulani to the north. Subgroups of the Yoruba in Nigeria include the Awori, the Ijesha, the Oyo, the Ife, the Egba, the Egbado, the Ketu, the Ijebu, the Ondo, the Ekiti, the Yagba, and the Igbomina. These subgroups have been described as belonging to a distinct cultural category because of such binding factors as a generally intelligible language, myth of common origin, and basically similar political structures. Besides the Yoruba in Nigeria, subgroups of Yoruba descent exist in other areas of the world as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and the artificially drawn international boundaries. In French Dahomey, now known as The Republic of Benin, the Yoruba are known as the Nago. In Cuba, they are known as the Lukumi. In Sierra Leone, they are known as the Aku, and in Surinam as Yoruba (Warner-Lewis 1996). In Brazil, the Yoruba culture influenced a religion known as Candomble (Murphy 1994; Voeks. 1997). In North America, particularly in Miami, Florida, Yorubainfluenced syncretistic religion is known as Santeria (Gonzalez-Wippler 1998).
Yoruba Culture and the Meaning of Marriage
Yoruba culture is not static. At the same time, every generation tries to preserve aspects of the indigenous tradition. This effort is counterbalanced by the pragmatic desire of the Yoruba to appropriate change in the garb of tradition. The dialectical relationship between the unchanging aspects of Yoruba culture and the dynamics of change are fueled by two sources of human interaction. The first source of change pertains to the new conflicts in human interaction that cannot be explained by Yoruba tradition. The second is the permanent effect of contact with Islam and the West, expressed in such institutions as law, marriage, religion, education, and public health services. Tola Olu Pearce has drawn attention to the importance of situating the present resistance to women’s efforts to participate in the democratic process in Africa in the context of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial times if it is to be fully understood. As she noted, “What is of theoretical import is the fact that elements of all three historical periods interact in the present” (2000). For example, Yoruba marriage forms have been influenced by Christian and Muslim marriage practices in all the three phases even as the steps to Yoruba marriage project a decidedly traditional outer form. In marriages in contemporary Yoruba society, the modernized Yoruba cling tenaciously to this outer form as a proof of loyalty to the original culture. Traditional Yoruba courtship and marriage must be understood in the context of the impact of the precolonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods.
The family is the most sacred and significant institution to the Yoruba, who are child-centered, ruled by the elderly, and controlled by adults. The family is an effective unit of political control, religious affiliation, resource allocation, and assurance of safety. It is also the most effective agent of socialization. The family teaches the first lessons in discipline, personal gratitude, and affection. The family is where young people are exposed to their first preferences and prejudices. In the family, the lessons in honor and shame are learned, just as are the first lessons in dissembling to avoid the truth that may injure the well-being of the community. More poignantly, it is in and through the copious lessons in religious symbolism learned in the family that one comes to understand the cyclical and connected way of life in the here and now, the future, and the hereafter. Many Yoruba proverbs reiterate the view that the dead gave birth to the living, and the living ought to give birth to and nurture the children who represent the future.
The Yoruba further cloak these sentiments in the garb of religious obligation by insisting on a notion of afterlife whose reward is the opportunity for those elders who died well or properly to come and visit their progeny on earth. They attach their soul to the two other souls of the child to be born (Bascom 1956). Eleda, the first soul, is every individual’s share in divine essence. The ori is that which is unique, or that which distinguishes one from any other person. In and through the child that is born, the dead are reincarnated to temporarily be with and bless the living. The sociological significance of this notion of birth and rebirth lies in its usefulness as a social welfare policy (Zeitlin; Megawangi; Kramer; Colleta; Babatunde; and Garman 1995). It ensures that children are wanted, nurtured, and brought up to be fine examples of what the Yoruba call Omoluwabi—the well-bred child. If a parent believes a son or daughter is a reincarnation of the parent’s mother or father, the parent will not abandon the child. Seen in this context, marriage for the Yoruba man or woman is a necessity. As Nathaniel Fadipe noted:
For a man or a woman who has reached the age of marriage to remain single is against the mores of the Yoruba. Men get married even when they are sexually impotent in order to save either their faces or the faces of their immediate relatives, as well as to get one to look after their domestic establishment. There are a few cases of confirmed bachelors; men, who have reached middle age without getting married even though they are in position to do so. But they are a product of modern times with its individualism, and are most invariably Christians. (1970, p. 65)
Ideally, marriage should establish the foundation of the family. When it does, marriage is a union not only of the two spouses, but the two extended families to which they belong. Marriage itself is the proof that both spouses are good products and ambassadors of their families. By successfully going through the demanding steps to the Yoruba marriage, the spouses are a good reflection on the quality of character of their families. They have shown restraint as people who are well brought up, focused, enduring, reliable, disciplined, and people who are able to defer gratification until they are ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. As the Yoruba say, “It is easy to get married; what is difficult is to provide daily food for the family” (Ati gbeyawo, kekere; owo obe lo soro). In other words, the ability to satisfy the hierarchy of human needs was critical to the Yoruba evaluation of the spouses’ readiness to be united in marriage. They ought to be able to provide food and shelter and safety. They ought to have the level of commitment and patience needed to inculcate a sense of belonging and self-esteem in their children. The test of the level to which one has internalized a sense of belonging and self-esteem is manifest in the desire to excel and find self-fulfillment in the service of the family. To ensure that the spouses have the requisite level of the skills that will enable their family to find its own balance, an elaborate system of calibrated steps and activities tests the endurance of the spouses. These steps reiterate the fact that the selection of the spouse is a communal affair that involves several symbolic steps (Babatunde 1992).
Steps That Lead to Marriage
Six important steps lead to the traditional Yoruba marriage:
The time for seeking a potential spouse (Igba ifojusode);
The approval of the oracle-divinity (Ifa f’ore);
The release of the voice of the young woman (Isihun);
The request for the young woman’s hand in marriage (Itoro);
The creation of the affinal bond (Idana); and
The transfer of the wife to the husband’s lineage (Igbeyawo).
When the young adult male is between twenty three and twenty-eight years of age and the female is between eighteen and twenty-five, they are both expected to be identifying potential spouses. At this time, the male is expected to have acquired skills that will allow him to provide for his family. The Yoruba socialization ensures that the daughter learns, from the age of seven, to serve as a little mother and child-caregiver to her younger siblings. By the time she is preparing for marriage, the Yoruba female would have learned some of the preliminary skills she will need to be a wife and mother from watching her mother and other women in her family.
Because Yoruba society in male-oriented, it is structured in favor of men taking initiative in the steps that lead to marriage. Thus, it is the man who formalizes his desire to proceed to the next level of courtship by visiting the house of the spouse-to-be. It is the man who pays his prospective to Isihun—payment to release the voice of the female so that the couple can talk with one another (eesee Ishihun). It is the suitor’s male relations who take the initiative to institutionalize the marriage by first going to ask for the hand of the spouse. The suitor’s male relations plan for the ceremony that creates affinal bond between the two families. Finally, the spouse is transferred from one group of patrilineal kin to another.
In traditional Yoruba society, the forum for meeting the potential spouse is the evening marketplace, Oja ale. During this period of seeking a spouse, it is a cultural obligation for mothers of young female adults to find a reason for them to go to the market. Often, among the highly entrepreneurial Yoruba, some commodity is found for the female to sell in the evening marketplace. The female continues to go to the evening market until a serious prospect is identified. The seriousness of the prospective spouse is determined, when after many meetings in the evening market, the young man offers to go and visit the young female in her parent’s home. Among the Yoruba, avoidance is part of the etiquette regulating one’s interaction with one’s affinal relatives. The determination to visit the house of one’s potential spouse is a final proof of readiness to engage in a serious relationship. However, before the suitor takes this important step, he should inform his father about his intentions. The father of the suitor then informs the eldest male member of the extended family, Idile, who is known as the elderly father (Baba agba).
The suitor’s father communicates the message to the eldest member of the lineage in symbolic language, “Elderly father, your son has seen a beautiful flower that he thinks he wants to pluck” (Omo yin ti ri ododo elewa ti o feja). The elderly relative then replies, “Can our family members pluck a flower from that family tree?” (Nje awon ebi wa leja ododo lati iru igi bee). The father of the suitor answers that from inquiries already made, members of their extended family can pluck flowers from the said tree. Then the elderly father gives his blessing by appointing a wife of the family to serve as the go-between (Alarena).
The choice of a very respected wife as the go-between has complex sociological implications. As an affinal member of the lineage, she has the immunity of an outsider with a proven record of excellent service as a wife and a role model for new wives of members of the lineage. The Yoruba, who are very secretive and status-conscious, would find it offensive for a family member of the husband to take on this sensitive job of finding background information about the family history of the prospective wife. Because the go-between is an outsider acting on behalf of the male descendants of family, the culture accords her the immunity to carry out her assigned duty as a neutral party. Yet the main condition for her selection is her intense loyalty to the extended family into which she married. The office of the go-between is also a mechanism for the smooth integration of the wife-to-be into her family of marriage. If things work out, the new wife is not completely alone in her new family. She has an ally in the go-between.
The go-between tries to discover information that will assist the elders of the suitor’s family in deciding whether the spouse would be a good companion for their son and a good resource in the extended family. If the go-between finds out that members of the spouse’s family are lazy, that their womenfolk are stubborn and incorrigible in their marital homes, or if men in the extended family of the spouse are notorious debtors or have been known to have debilitating diseases, this information will be passed on to the elders, who will subsequently bring pressure to bear on their son to discontinue the relationship. If inquiries reveal that the spouse’s family members have a reputation for hard work, respect for elders, a great sense of nurture and motivation to induce their children to excel, every effort will be made to move the courtship to the next step in the process. The male elders direct the father of the suitor to find out from the oracle the future prospects of the union. The Yoruba are pragmatic. They want to know ahead of time whether the endeavor is worth the effort. The oracle is an instrumental use of symbolic inquiry to fathom the profitability of a future enterprise.
Select male elders of the suitor’s lineage would consult the oracle divinity (Orunmila) who serves as the refraction of the supreme being, Olodumare. The intention is to find out whether the marriage will benefit the extended family. Symbolic presents are made to the priest of Orunmila. The priest of Orunmila is known as the Keeper of Secrets or fortune-teller (Babalawo). The gifts include a goat, two fowl, two pigeons, a tortoise, and a snail. This ritual consultation serves as an occasion for the redistribution of meat, a scarce commodity in Yoruba society. Parts of the goat, such as the head and the hind legs, are sent as present to the elderly members of the consulting family. The rest of the goat is cooked for the members of the extended family of the fortune-teller. The other items serve as the consultation fees for the service rendered. Again, it is very rare for the results of the oracle divination to contradict the general mood of the extended family modeled on the findings of the go-between. It is not without reason that the pragmatic Yoruba proverb emphatically asserts that one ought to use one’s hands to repair one’s fortune (Owo eni laafi ti tun ara eni se).
If the oracle is positive, the process of courtship, until then private and secretive, now becomes a public event with all the formality for which the ancient, dignified Yoruba culture is known. If the portent is negative, elders dig up some forgotten past occurrence that has prohibited marriage between members of both families. The sociological significance of this step in the marital process has to do with the desire to cloak the wishes of the extended family in the present in the garb of tradition so as to make the results more final and readily acceptable to the parties. It would be unthinkable in the traditional close-knit Yoruba society for the spouses to take the only choice left to them by refusing the pronouncement of the oracle and opting to elope. In the Yoruba traditional society, one’s fortunes and safety are guaranteed only as a member of one’s group of ascription. To separate oneself from the group by elopement would amount to social suicide.
Once the approval has been given, the suitor is then allowed to visit the home of the prospective spouse. The visit takes place at dusk and is accompanied by an extreme show of cordiality. The suitor is always accompanied by a male peer. The visitors greet every senior member of the household, male and female. Upon the conclusion of the elaborate greeting, seats for them are placed in a conspicuous place. The two sit patiently and endure being ignored for about an hour. They then begin the elaborate ritual of departure, which includes completely prostrating themselves flat on the belly for one senior member of the house after another. Upon the conclusion of this ritual, the suitor goes out and waits patiently for the spouse to emerge. When the spouse arrives, the male companion moves to a safe distance.
A unique aspect of the first six visits is that only the male speaks. By the seventh meeting, the male pays the female the equivalent of two dollars and ten cents to release, literally, the voice of the spouse to converse (si ohun). This ritual establishes a hierarchy of superordination and subordination. The wife-to-be is already conceding to the prospective husband the right to be the head of the family. These visits continue for six months, after which the time is set for the crucial ceremony of Itoro.
Itoro—begging for the prospective spouse’s hand in marriage—is conducted between the male elders of the suitor and the spouse. The man’s family members pay a visit to the compound of the extended family of the prospective spouse. It is important that the visit be unannounced, even though everyone involved seems to be in the right place at the right time. It is important too that upon arrival at the woman’s house, her father uses symbolic language to tell the visitors that it is not his right, but that of his elders, to give his daughter in marriage. He proceeds to take the group to the eldest member of the family. At the house of the eldest member, all the senior members of the prospective spouse’s lineage are waiting. This deference of the father to the eldest member of the family is a demonstration that the marriage of a member of the family is the business of all the members of the extended family because the suitor and the spouse are ambassadors of their extended families. The two families become united in a very special way by the union of the two people in marriage. Before the parties depart, a date is set for the most important ceremony, the Idana or creating the affinal tie.
The Idana ceremony centers on the payment of bride-wealth. This payment officially transfers the two crucial rights in the woman to the extended family of the suitor. Although the Yoruba term for bride-wealth literally translates Owo ori as “money for the head,” in actual fact, this practice has, among the Yoruba, little to do with the transfer of economic resources as price for the wife-tobe. Yoruba families would cringe at the idea of putting monetary value on the head of a daughter. The presents involved in this ceremony have very little economic worth. Their significance has to do with the symbolic value they reiterate for enhancing the goals and objectives of the Yoruba family.
The anthropology of bride-wealth has identified prime and contingent obligations as the two categories of bride-wealth (Fortes 1962; Babatunde 1998). Primary obligations are essential to marriage because they transfer the core rights in the woman as a mother to the house of her husband. This core right is the procreative rights of the woman. Contingent obligations, however, transfer the rights to the woman as a homemaker.
The items involved in the Yoruba primary obligations are not negotiable. They have been fixed by tradition, and their use is not restricted to marriage because the culture tends, generally, to repeat rituals continuously to reinforce the aim, intention, purpose, and acceptable practices deemed crucial to the survival of the group. These items that are used in other rituals of the Yoruba life-cycle retain the same symbolic function. They include honey (oyin), salt (iyo), palm oil (epo pupa), kola nut (obi; kola acuminata), and bitter kola (Orogbo). Each item serves as a motif for prayers that reinforce what is desirable and necessary to make a marriage, and, indeed, life itself successful. Examples of prayers include:
This is honey; the quality of honey is sweetness. May your married life be sweet, that is, happy by being blessed with many children and money to take care of them.
This is salt. It preserves and sweetens, may you be preserved in your lives so that you live long and see your children’s children.
This is palm oil. It reduces the harsh taste of pepper in the soup. May the harsh impact of difficult times be ameliorated;
This is kola nut. It produces prolifically. May you wife be as fertile as the kola nut tree and be blessed with many children who survive and do great things in life;
This is bitter kola. It means that you will live long and see your children achieve great things in your lifetime;
This is a pen. We use it to write. Education is the means to greatness. May you learn to read and write and become famous through achievement in education;
This is the Bible/Koran. It is the holy book of power. May your faith provide direction to you in life;
This is candle. It lights the way. May the word of God provide the light that will guide you through life;
This is money. Money is needed for fulfillment and enjoyment of life. May you be blessed with plenty of it in your lifetime.
The property or quality of each item in the ritual repertoire is used to attempt to achieve a similar effect in the couple about to get married. This is based on the twin magical principles of the effect of like producing like and on effect by contact. The special quality of the ritual item is used as a motif in the prayer to reinforce the purpose and expectation of marriage. Taste is transformed to a condition of living in terms of what the Yoruba regard as happiness. Thus, a life that is sweet is equal to one that is happy. Yoruba understanding of happiness includes wealth, demonstrated in long life, begetting many healthy children who outlive their parents, having many wives, large cash crop farms, and status in the community.
The secondary obligations consist of duties that are periodically performed by the son-in-law to parent-in-law. The husband performs these duties as a continuous demonstration of his indebtedness to the family that has provided him with a wife. These duties include the provision of free labor to weed the farms, thatch leaking roofs, and harvest farm products, and political and economic support in times of competition for the various achieved status in the Yoruba community.
Co-Wife and Sibling Rivalry
Rivalry between co-wives and between siblings is useful for the maintenance of patrilineal ideology. To prevent the conjugal tie from threatening loyalty to the lineage, a wedge is put between husband and wife (Babatunde 1983). From the start, the wife understands that the Yoruba monogamy is the commencement of a possible polygyny (Sudarkasa 1996). The thought of sharing one’s beloved with other wives reduces the intensity of the conjugal tie. A second source of rivalry is the practice that a man can marry two or more wives. The division of children within the family according to mothers creates competing groups within the family. Children of the same mother (Omo Iya) are often set against those of other mothers. The term that describes all the children who belong to the same father is Obakan. The relationship between the Omo-Iya and Obakan, respectively, must be understood in the dialectical terms referred to by Edward Evans-Pritchard as “fusion and fission” (1940). Children of the same father, Obakan, unite to protect their father’s property and their common interests. When competing for resources within the family, they subdivide into groups of children of the same mother to protect their interests at this level. Yoruba fireside tales, told while the evening meal is cooking, often reiterate the lesson of the jealous co-wife who, in the attempt to hurt the children of her co-wife, ends up killing her own children. The Yoruba practice of having co-wives and all children eat from the same big bowl of food is both a way to prevent internal divisions within the family and to lessen those that already exist.
Monogamous marriages also have sibling rivalry, especially in contemporary times. Because seniority exerts some political control in the group, the assumption is that elders know more. As long as the society remained agrarian, the arrogation of roles and statuses sought to respect the function of seniority in the articulation of control. Morally contradictory practices like efforts to deliberately tell lies to protect the integrity of the senior were condoned. The ability to dissemble was seen as a proof of cultural suavity. With modernization, individual achievement and merit replaced the privileges of ascription and seniority. Ability, not age, became the most important factor in seniority. Conflict arose because many junior siblings seemed to succeed more in the new order. This change made the position of the senior son or daughter precarious. The significant amount of mistrust and conflict between senior and junior siblings in contemporary Yoruba families is the price that is being paid to resolve the transition from the predictable agrarian culture to the complex modern culture.
Birth Control and Childrearing
Among the Yoruba, the weaning practice maintains a three-year gap between births. Subtle cultural methods of reinforcements are brought to bear on the female to observe this method of spacing and birth control. Since the Yoruba social structure is male-oriented, some of those methods of enforcement of traditional forms of birth control are asymmetrical. They impose the duty of control on the female while excusing the male from the same rigorous disciplinary expectations. To satisfy his sexual cravings at this time, the Yoruba man is allowed to take another wife, with the supposed assistance of the first wife. If a wife gets pregnant within oneand one-half years of giving birth, she is made the subject of jokes and made to look like one who belongs to the wild, one whose hot passions were not tamed as she grew up. Not only is she the focus of jokes, but by extension, her extended family is blamed, too. The husband is not exempt from blame, but is excused to begin a relationship that can become formalized into a marriage.
A more positive method of birth control is the cultural obligation of continence for the mother once her daughter begins to give birth to children. This expectation is related to the expectation that the mother spends between three to six months to assist the daughter in nursing and postpartum care. When they see the need, the Yoruba use innuendo, derisive songs, and open avoidance to show disapproval for mothers who compete with their daughters to have children.
Morality, Childrearing, and Food Distribution Among the Yoruba
Anthropological literature on African infant care practices (Babatunde 1992) reiterates that children are being prepared to seek group survival through acquiring a sense of belonging and loyalty to the group. Living in a harsh environment with rudimentary technology, other people constitute ones’ technology (Turnbull 1974). So Yoruba parents teach their children obligatory sharing. They also teach them practical lessons by withholding portions of meat, eggs, and other animal foods from children because they believe that when children acquire tastes in these expensive and scarce commodities, the desire to satisfy them will make children steal (Ransome-Kuti 1972). From a more pragmatic economic perspective, it was also considered most uneconomical to eat an egg that could produce a chicken, which would in turn produce more chickens. Thus, in the attempt to teach discipline, self-denial and deferred gratification, this pattern of food distribution within the family leads to unintended nutritional crises. Although claims about these crises were made in qualitative research studies, only in the 1990s were the claims empirically confirmed by quantitative research findings (Setiloane 1995).
In a study conducted as part of UNICEF’s Child Development Project in Nigeria from 1986 to 1989 entitled Child Development for the Computer Age, quantitative research using anthropometrics measures was conducted in rural and semirural settlements along Ifo-Otta, in Ogun State, forty-five minutes from Lagos. To be eligible for this family study, the mother had to be Yoruba; the child had to be between twenty-two and twenty-six months old; the child could not be a twin. The researchers also required that the child have a birth certificate to verify its age and that both mother and child lived in the household. A systematic sampling frame specified that every second house was to be selected, with daily starting points. Sample size for the cross-sectional field research totaled 211, including a census sample of 181 mothers and their children and an additional subsample of thirty households screened for the presence of malnourished children.
Survey instruments included a fifty-two item questionnaire that asked how frequently foods were consumed, as well as structured observations of feeding and play; the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bayley 1969); a socioeconomic and attitudinal questionnaire containing the Caldwell H.O.M.E Inventory (Cadwell and Bradley 1984); an ethnographic study of ten households, and, finally, anthropometrics measurements of weights and heights of children. The impact of beliefs on withholding meat and nutrient-dense foods for children was surveyed in a section with the question: Is there any reason why you don’t think a child of this age should have more meat? The participants answered yes or no to the following choices: (a) more might cause child to have worms; (b) more might cause a child to steal; and (c) more could spoil child so he expects too much when things are scarce. This section also included the question: Do you believe that a child of this age (two years) should have more meat if you can afford it?
Responses to questions on stealing, spoiling, and moral character were combined together using factor analysis to create an index. The score of any respondent could range from a minimum of 0 (0 on all 3 items) to a maximum of 3 (1 on all 3 items). The index was subsequently condensed to a dichotomous variable representing mothers who had abandoned all beliefs about meat and moral training (0) and those who retained one or more (1). Each of these variables was used alternatively as a measure of mother’s beliefs.
The data collected show that the distribution pattern gave available meat to fathers and mothers at the expense of their children. Among adults, men were favored over women. The median values of mothers’ allocation rules deprive the children relative to their protein requirement needs when they need it most—between age one day to two years—and gives adult males more than their nutritional requirements. Although this outcome was predictable given the Yoruba male-oriented ideology, what was surprising was the result of the data on the impact of modernization on food allocation. A more in-depth examination of the meat allocation rule through cluster analysis showed that the total amount of meat mothers allocate changes with modernization. However, the ratio of meat relative to the total available remains the same, and adult males still get much more than their nutritional needs. But because modernization makes more amount of meat available, the children get more meat to meet their requirements. The data prove the saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same.