The Yoruba are a group of people living in modern-day Nigeria, Togo and Benin in West Africa. They are known for, amongst other things, their magnificent sculpture work. They are one of the largest ethnic groups of the area, making up more than one-fifth of the population of Nigeria alone. In fact, Nigeria has the greatest concentration of Yoruba people than any other country. Most of these speak Yoruba as a language too. Interestingly, in addition to Africa, there are also large communities of Yoruba immigrants in the United States of America and the United Kingdom.
Africa has been inhabited for millennia, according to archaeological and historical remnants. The people that occupied this part of West Africa were not always called the Yoruba, but had a common language and ethnicity. The Yoruba are known for forming large city settlements instead of smaller village-like establishments.
The Yoruba culture is based largely on the more than 400 gods in which these people believe. In addition to affecting their worship and praise, these gods are also an important subject for their art. Such art includes ceramic work, beading, metal work, and the making of traditional face masks. The multitude of their gods makes for great variety in their artwork. Such art dates back hundreds of years; artefacts of terra cotta sculptures have been found that date back to the 12th century.
In terms of the Yoruba literature, there are six main genres that still survive to this day:
1. Hunters’ chants (ijala)
2. Masquerade chants (iwi egungun)
3. Social chants (rara)
4. Praise chants for the god of thunder (sango-pipe)
5. Divination poetry (ifa)
6. Children’s poetry
Poetry and tales were only conveyed orally until the early part of the 19th century since there was no official written or read language structure until then. At this time, missionaries began to collect such stories and produce a written form of the language that they heard. This was an enormous step forward for the writers and poets of the time, as they were now able to record their work on paper, publish it in local newspapers and share it with others on a far wider scale. By the end of the 20th century, over 120 novels had been published in the Yoruba language.
In terms of theatrical performance, there are two main types: 1) travelling theatre and 2) literary drama. Travelling theatre is performed in front of a live audience and is not scripted, while literary drama is published, and seldom performed.
The naming of babies makes up an enormously significant part of the Yoruba culture. Yorubas believe, as do many other African cultures, that the baby will live to fulfil the meaning of the name that it is given. Therefore, what they name their child will shape the personality, success and future of that person. When naming a newborn infant, the parents must consider the history of his or her relatives. The name is considered to be like a spirit; a similar concept to the western idea of a guardian angel. A naming ceremony is conducted, usually by the oldest member of the family. At this celebration, other relatives have the opportunity to add to the baby’s official name(s). This has resulted in Yoruba people with more than 10 or 12 official names. Pet names are also important for each child, and are generally chosen to reflect one’s hope for the child’s future.
The courting process (with the aim of marriage) often involves the young man and his friends playing pranks on the chosen girl. He will send love letters to her and, once she has indicated that she reciprocates his feelings, his parents will need to discuss the matter with her parents. A bride price is required before the wedding can take place. Marriage in this community involves the union of two families, not only two individuals. Traditionally, a woman must remain a virgin until her wedding day in order not to bring shame upon her family.
Like almost every other religion, the Yoruba believe that the soul continues to live after death; thus not really dying at all. Their religion is referred to as Aborisha or Orisha-Ifa. The entire purpose of a devout Yoruba person’s life is to live in such a way that promotes a good life, while delivering the message of the Creator to others to do the same. If this has been done, the Yoruba believe that their afterlife will be a pleasant one (equivalent to the Christian concept of a life in heaven). Another prominent belief is that of ancestors, who are believed to be watching over their living relatives on earth. Instead of worshipping such ancestors, though, the Yoruba merely venerate, remember and respect them.