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Prsence Africaine Editions

The Yoruba Philosophy of Life

Author(s): J. Omosade AWOLALU
Source: Prsence Africaine, Nouvelle srie, No. 73 (1er TRIMESTRE 1970), pp. 20-38
Published by: Prsence Africaine Editions
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Accessed: 15-12-2016 18:57 UTC

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The Yoruba Philosophy of Life

Contrairement ce que croyaient les Europens au

XIX6 sicle, savoir que l'Africain tait incapable de
raisonnement profond et n'avait donc aucune philoso
phie, une tude de la pense et des religions africaines
dmontre que les Africains en ont une.
Cet article porte sur la conception de la vie chez
les Yoruba. Comme d'autres ethnies en Afrique, ils
croient dans l'au-del qui, selon eux, n'est que la conti
nuation de la vie ici-bas.
La vie sur terre est donc, dans la conception tradi
tionnelle yoruba, une tape prparatoire la vie c
leste, plus pleine, plus durable d'o il importe, pen
dant notre sjour terrestre, de vivre en paix et en har
monie avec Dieu le Crateur (qui a le pouvoir de mo
difier notre sort) et avec les divinits de la tribu qui,
avec les anctres, servent d'intermdiaires entre l'hom
me et le Crateur.
Vivre en paix avec Dieu et les divinits, c'est vivre
en paix avec ses voisins. Les valeurs matrialistes in
troduites par les colonisateurs dans cette socit ont
modifi cette philosophie...


Contrary to the sort of impression given by the European

observers in the 19th century (1) that, by nature, Africans

(1) Examples abound. Leo Frobenius read in a Berlin journal in

1891 that before the introduction of Arab culture, the Africans had no
political organisation, civilisation or religion. Leo Frobenius : The Voice
of Africa, vol. I (Oxford, 1913), p. 1.
See also Emil Ludwig's statement to E.W. Smith on the former's
astonishment on learning that missionaries were working among Afri

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were shallow thinkers incapable of any sou

A study of African thought and beliefs sh
Africans do have a positive philosophy o
we shall illustrate our point with a study
of life.
It is true that the concept of life, like any other concept,
may vary from one generation to the other, or from one
society to another. For example, in the era of the politicians
of the First Republic, Nigerians were treated to certain poli
tical slogans each of which may be described as a philosophy
of life, since it gave vent to the kind of positive attitude to
life which their authors were either following or professed
to be following. Two of these slogans were Life More Abun
dant and Chopping Life (2).
Life really is not easily definable, but for our purpose we
may adopt, out of its various meanings, that aspect which em
phasizes existence of physical life as opposed to non-existence
or death. To the Yoruba, however, life means not merely exis
tence of physical life, gifted with breath like any other crea
ture ; when the Yoruba think or speak of life with reference to
a person or society the meanings they attach to it embrace
good health, prosperity, longevity, peace and happiness.
In life, the Yoruba expect to have felicity, well-being and
good fortune. But the prerequisite to these blessings, they
believe, is peace. This is what they call alafia. It is the sum
total of all that is good that man may desire an undisturbed
harmonious life. This desire for alafia is expressed not only
in prayers and aphorisms but also in songs, as illustrated by
the following short modern song :

Ma a ko'le
Ma a bi'mo
Ma ra moto ayokele
Laisi alafia
Wonyen ko se ise.
Alafia loju
liera loro
Eniti o ni alafia
O lohun gbogbo (3).

cans. How can they (Africans) comprehend God ? he asked. B.W.

Smith (ed.) : African Ideas of God (London, Edinburgh House, 1950),
p. 1.
(2) Chopping Life a peculiar party political slogan meaning really
enjoying life ; getting the best out of life. ,
(3) Dele Ojo : Alafia ; Philips West African Records No. PFB. 898.

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I want to build a house,

I want to have children,
I want to have a motor-car.
Without peace.
These things are impossible,
Peace is supreme,
Health is wealth,
He who has peace
Has everything.

Alafia as it is being conceived, is very similar to the Hebrew

concept of shalom. According to Alan Richardson, shalom is
a comprehensive word covering the manifold relationships of
daily life, and expressing the ideal state of life in Israel...
The fundamental meaning is totality, well-being, harmony,
with stress on material untouched by violence or misfor
tune (4).
In other words, shalom is the totality of what makes for
harmony, joy and wholeness in physical, mental, domestic, re
lational, social, national and international life. For example, if
a Hebrew has enough to eat, good physical health but disor
dered domestic affairs, or if he has everything he could desire
domestically but the community in which he lives is not at
peace, or if his community is internally in a state of prosperity
but the external relationship constitutes a menace then, as far
as he is concerned, that can only be at best a disturbed or dis
rupted shalom.
Similarly, from the Yoruba point of view, alafia is incomplete
or disrupted when there is no totality about it.
Life, as the Yoruba conceive it, can be divided into two cate
gories ;

a) life on earth, that is present life ;

b) life hereafter, that is after death.

The two cannot be separated but, for the purposes of ana

lysis and consideration, let us treat them separately before
bringing them together, and see how they are related to each

(4) A. Richardson : A Theological Word Book of the Bible ; (S.C.M.

1957), p. 165.

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To the Yoruba, life on earth is not real unless it is happy

and peaceful. If a person does not have the good things in life
many wives, many and good children, long life to enjoy these
earthly blessings life will be said to be unkind to him.
People will say of the person O sin awon alaiye wa jaiye ni .
This means that the person only escorts into the world those
who enjoy life, he does not really partake of the good things
life offers. He is a mere onlooker.
Now let us consider those elements which, according to
the Yoruba philosophy of life, go into the making of this

a) Elements of a peaceful life.

i) Joy and happiness.

A man is considered happy when everything that he does

prospers. He is satisfied with the things he sees around him
in his domestic life and in national life. Things go naturally
smoothly for him. He has no bitterness against anybody but
shows love to all.

ii) Increase in prosperity.

What the typical Yoruba regards as prosperity is not con

tained in the number of mansions put up in Lagos or Ibadan
or the number of cars or lorries (so he has not the criminal
tendency to commit highway robbery or burglary, the get-rich
quick devices of the present age) but in the number of wives
and children he has. If he has a woman who is barren, or if
the children die one after another, there can be no peace in the
home. A husband and wife that find themselves in this type of
predicament seek aid, oracular and medical, to avert the

iii) Ritual devotion and observance of moral values.

The Yoruba believe that the Supreme Being (Olorun or

Olodumare) is the Creator of life. He has limitless power to

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order all things as He wishe

he keeps in close touch wi
who provides all human needs uninterrupted train of hap
piness, increase in the tribe, protection of crops and domestic
animals, victories over enemies, long life to enjoy the good
The creator God does not merely create the world
and man and all other things ; He also plans that there should
be a definite order of things. It is when this order is not
disturbed that there can be harmony and man can truly enjoy
In His organisation and administration of the World,
OJorun has brought into being a number of divinities who
act as ministers or angelic beings in His kingdom. To each is
assigned a portfolio. These divinities are known by the generic
name Orisa. Thus, they are functionaries in the kingdom and are
believed to be intermediaries between men and God. It should
be emphasized that God is not one of these divinities.
Man is to keep in close touch with the Supreme Being and
the divinities under Him. When a true devotee wakes up early
in the morning, before he exchanges greetings with anybody
else, he sounds the gong placed at the shrine of his divinity,
he prostrates himself, his forehead touching the ground three
times ; he invokes the divine spirit and prays loudly for all
the blessings of this life, for himself as well as for others. He
pours a libation of gin or water, he breaks the kola-nut, and
casts it to know what the day holds in store for him. Until this
is done, the day's work cannot begin. At one time or another,
sacrifices votary, thanksgiving, expiatory or communion
are offered.
In order that things may go well with him, the Yoruba
keeps in close touch with the divinities he worships. These
intermediaries are believed to carry man's requests to God. If
communication breaks down between man and the divine,
calamity will descend upon man. It is, therefore, a constant
urge and longing on the part of man to establish, renew or
maintain communion and communication with the divine and
so to enjoy the peace which gives meaning and coherence to
Besides ritual devotion, the Yoruba attach great importance
to iw (character). They know it is the one thing which disting
uishes a person from an animal. When the Yoruba say of
someone o se'nia (He acts the person ; he behaves as a person
should), they mean that he shows in his life and personal rela
tions with others the right qualities of a person (...) A person of

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good character is called omoluwabi (omo-o

who behaves as a well-born ; and a person of bad character is
is enia-k'enia, a mere caricature of a person, a reprobate (5).
So, there is value judgment here.
It must be mentioned that the Yoruba remember and invoke
only good ancestors ; that is, ancestors who lived a good life
on earth and had a peaceful death. Bad ones are never called
upon. This suggests that only those who are considered and
declared good by the accepted standard of the society can enjoy
life hereafter. This is why man is expected to live a decent life
when here on earth. Life consists not in what a man has, but
in what he is.
In consequence of this, stealing, cheating and bewitching,
to mention but a few of the vices that are believed to incur
the wrath of the divinities and the anger of the ancestors, will
not go unpunished. Men, therefore, try to be in good harmonious
relationship with God and with the divinities and ancestors who
are the guardians of morality.

iv) Long life.

The Yoruba know that death is a necessary end but it is

believed that a man must die only at a very old age. It is
only that type of death which is regarded natural. For little
children or young adults to die is quite unnatural. If an old
man dies as a consequences of a lorry accident or a thunder
shock, for example, such a sudden death is unnatural and it is
believed to be caused by an enemy (6).
If a man lives long, and many of his children and grand
children die when he is still alive, he will be regarded as an
unfortunate old man. Hence the Yoruba saying Omo ko l'ayo
le, eni omo sin lo bimo. This means, There is little cause
for joy in children ; he who is buried by children is he who
really has children (7). In other words, having children is
not an end in itself. Children must live long enough to accord
proper burial to their father, and to prosper long after the
old man's departure. It is in this way that the man's soul per
sists and grows dead but yet speaking .
This compares with the Hebrew idea that when a man has
progeny, his soul spreads in his sons and the sons of his sons,
and the more numerous they are, the greater the soul becomes.

E. Bolaji Idowu : Olodumare (Longmans, 1961), p. 154.

(6) Idowu : op. cit., under Life After Death.
(7) Idowu : op. cit., p. 183.

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The progeny is not something which comes after the man.

it is the man himself who multiplies (8).
Granted that he has a reasonable amount of food to eat,
children to share the food with him, some clothes to wear and,
above all, peace, a Yoruba can be very delightful and highly
convivial. He works hard and plays hard. He divides his time
between the two acivities. He, like W.H. Davis of old, will
ask :

What is this life,

If full of care,
We have no time
To stand and stare ?

Hence he finds time to play such games as Ayo and Agbrin

(9) in the day-time. In the evening, especially on a moonlit
night, he gathers his children and tells fables. The narration of
the folk-tales and singing go hand in hand. On many occasions,
the Yoruba enjoy drumming, singing and dancing. It is a life
worth living when the head of a family is dancing and the
younger members and the wives come forward to pay their due
regard by prostrating and kneeling down before him, spreading
their garments on the floor and dancing with him. These are
some of the things that make life worth living.

b) Factors believed to be contributory to the disruption of


i) Wrath of the divinities.

Ritual devotion has to be given to the divinities. In this

way their favour can be secured and maintained, and life
will be meaningful. These divinities have human passions. If
they feel affronted or denied of ritual devotion, they can be
angry and their wrath can bring down calamity on men. In
other words, the people believe that the divinities inspect their
course of life, reward good and punish wickedness.

(8) J. Pedersen : Israel : Its Life and Culture I-II (O.U.P. 1926),
P . 206.
(9) These are interesting native games.

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ii) Anger of the ancestors.

In addition to the divinities, the Yoruba believe in the

active existence of the dead ancestors. They believe that
death does not write finis. To them, earthly family life has
been extended into the life beyond in consequence of the de
parture of the ancestors into that place feared by the living.
These ancestors have greater potentialities than they enjoyed
when on earth ; they are released from all restraints imposed
by this earth. Because of such potentialities, it is believed that
they can be of tremendous benefit to the children who keep
them happy and who observe the family tabu but can be de
trimental to disobedient and negligent children. The implication
is that the ancestors expect their descendants to care for them
by making offerings of food and drink. They are regarded as
presiding spiritually over the welfare of the family. It is
believed that witches and sorcerers cannot harm a man and bad
medicines can have no effect on him unless his ancestors are
sleeping or neglecting him. It is common to hear a man
in difficulty saying to his ancestor Baba mi, ma ma sun o ( My
father, do not sleep ). This is an appeal to the ancestor to be
vigilant and helpful.
If a woman is having a difficult and protracted labour, the
family head consults oracles, and if it is revealed that the ances
tors are angry, for one reason or another, he brings gifts like
a goat, gin, kola-nuts or a cloth belonging to the sick person,
and he says something like this : Ah ! grandfathers (names
of ancestors in order will be given), I am come to you for
help. Your little daughter, Iyabo, is the one travailing (la
bouring). The soothsayer says she has broken the family tabu
or that she has neglected you. She is a little girl, quite foolish.
I, as the family head, am here to appeal to you to pardon
her, please. She has brought a very big she-goat, several kola
nuts, a bottle of gin and a beautiful dress of hers. As soon as
she is delivered safely, we shall bring this goat here to be
slaughtered. Therefore, as you gave birth to those of us who
are today remembering you, we implore you to release Iyabo
from her pain and to let her deliver safely .
When the woman is delivered, she comes to fulfil her vow.
This is followed by family feasting where the ancestors, though
invisible, are believed to be present.

iii) Failure to observe tabu.

Among the Yoruba there is the strong belief that certain

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things must not be done. T

bitions and avoidances aims
community, for a breach of these restrictions involves super
natural dangers. Things avoided are either holy and set apart
for a particular divinity or they are unclean and must be
avoided by man. Such things are referred to as tabu . The
Yoruba word for this is ewo, things forbidden or not done (10).
To do those things which are not to be done is to incur the
displeasure of the divinity or the ancestors who can bring
down calamity upon the transgressor in the same way as sin
in the Biblical sense is believed to drive a wedge between man
and God and to bring unpleasant consequences upon the sinful

Similarly, among the Semites, holy things are not fr

man, because they pertain to the gods ; uncleanness is
because it is hateful to the god and therefore not to be t
in his sanctuary, his worshippers, or his land (11).
Tabu, therefore, carries the two senses of respect (for
things sacred) and abhorrence (for those things which are un
clean). This compares with the sense of thek among the Nuer
people of the Southern Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (12).
Examples of tabu abound among the Yoruba. There are some
clans that are forbidden to eat certain items of food such as
a monkey or a porpucine because such animals are totems and
are therefore sacred. There are personal tabus such as not
eating Okro soup ; certain things are forbidden because they
are anti-social, immoral and unclean. There are stealing and
sex tabus : among the Ilaje people (a clan in Yorubaland), for
example, it is forbidden for a man to have sexual intercourse
with a woman on the bare ground. The Yoruba will
say of him O ba 'le je ( he has spoilt the earth ). The earth
will not yield its harvest unless something by way of ritual
is carried out. A man who breaks such a tabu will have to un
dergo an elaborate ritual ceremony lest he is overtaken by

To avoid disaster and to have alafia the Yoruba take great

care to observe tabus. It is their great concern to see that, if any
are violated, necessary rituals are performed to exculpate the
offenders, put them in the right relationships with the divinities
and make them acceptable to the society.

(10) Idowu : op. cit., p. 146. _

(11) W. Robertson Smith : The Religion
Black 1914), p. 446.
(12) Evans-Pritchard : Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956), chapter VII.

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iv) Witchcraft.

There is a very strong belief in witchcraf

as among Africans generally. Included are
Muslims and traditionalists, literates and illiterates. It was
Dr. Idowu who said To a good number of Africans within each
of these categories (i.e. politicians, university undergraduates
and graduates, lecturers and professors, trained nurses and
doctors, prominent Muslims, Christians and clergymen) witch
craft is an urgent and very harassing reality (13). Witchcraft
is considered the greatest factor that causes the abnormal to
happen and brings about disruption in harmony.
If we compare the various types of witches and the prac
tices ascribed to them, we find that they are thought to be a
threat to other people's lives, health, or property, not merely
because they wish them evil and therefore concoct harmful me
dicines and utter spells, but also (or even primarily) because
they themselves are freaks of nature, deviations from the nor
mal, 'cursed people' with perverse habits and thoughts (14).
This suggests that since they cannot think of and plan good
things, they can never think well of their fellow-men.
All witches are said to be in league with each other. They
are believed to be able to reverse all that is normal, helpful, pro
gressive and promising. There have been instances when wit
ches have confessed to sucking the blood of their victims and
destroying lives, changing into herbivorous animals and des
troying the crops of their hated neighbours as well as making
it impossible for pupils to pass examinations or for human
beings to make progress.

v) Sorcery.

Another factor that makes life insecure in Yorubaland is the

presence of sorcerers. They are different from witches in that
they are mainly men witches are almost invariably women
and use medical and magic powers to bring about harm, dis
comfort and death to people, especially those they happen to
hate. The witch uses sinister powers that extend beyond the
ordinary course of nature, but the sorcerer uses the natural,
known powers of medicine for anti-social ends. Many of

(13) E. Bolaji Idowu : Paper on The Meaning of Witchcraft in

Present-day Nigeria ; p. 1.
(14) Gunter Wagner : The Abaluyia of Kavirondo in African World,
edited by D. Forde (O.U.P. 1954), p. 46.

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them are believed to put poison in food to cause death or terri

ble diseases like tuberculosis ; they can cause people to commit
suicide or to be involved in ghastly accidents ; they can bring
down rain unexpectedly to disrupt a social get-together orga
nised by persons they dislike. They are believed to be able to
charm their adversaries, who are far away, to appear right in
front of them, and such figures of enemies as do appear have
been reported struck or fired at, with the result that they die
suddently in their place of residence.
From these examples, we see that sorcerers are wantonly
wicked, and their dreadful deeds have instilled fear into men.
In consequence of this, men seek means whereby they can
bypass catastrophes planned by the evil-doers.


i) Consulting oracles.

Ifa, the most important oracle among the Yoruba, is

consulted on all important occasions. For example, before a
child is born, the parents consult the oracle to know what
type of child it will be, what Orisa is to be worshipped, what
offerings to make, what tabus are to be observed by the child.
These are all prenatal precautionary measures to make sure
that all is well with the child.
As an adult, the Yoruba consult the oracle to know what
the future will be or to find out what the causes of present
problems are. It is the oracle that tells in time of trouble, fa
mine or sickness, which divinities have been offended and what
sacrifices are to be offered. In order to prevent disruption of
harmony and so to ensure lasting security in life, the Yoruba
seek various means of divination. Before they embark upon any
project, they ascertain that the project will be profitable. In
good times, people go to make sure that good fortune contin
ues ; on bad days, to change the course of events. Hence the
Yoruba saying : Nitori bi oni ti ri, ola ki iri be e, lo jeki Baba
lawo ma a di'fa ororun. This means the unpredictability of life
forces a babalawo (Ifa priest) to consult his oracle every fifth
Besides the Ifa oracle, the Yoruba go to the Muslim leaders
(who use geomancy) and to the aladura (prayer group) who
give visions. Each class of diviners has its special way of
finding out what the problems are now and will be in the

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future, and how the situation can be brought under control.

The Yoruba believe that these diviners are interpreters of
God's will which they can discern by the various means
It is also the practice among the Yoruba that if a young man
proposes to take a girl to wife, the parents will not give their
consent until they have consulted the oracle to find out
whether or not the marriage will be successful successful
in the sense that there will be long life, prosperity and in
crease. If the oracle says otherwise, no matter how much in love
the prospective couple might be, permission to marry will not
be granted by the parents. This is a means of ensuring life.
Similarly, if a person seeks a job, if he wants promotion,
if he wishes to travel or to build a house or to cultivate
new land or if he falls sick, the usual thing to do is
to consult an oracle. It is the oracle that reveals what precisely
is to be done to ensure safety, promotion, prosperity, food,
good health and all the good things the world can give.

ii) Warding off evil.

When the oracle reveals to the priest what things are and
are likely to be, there is the usual prescription of what is to be
done to prevent imminent evils, to change the present bad
circumstances or to retain good fortune. These prescriptions
take the form of sacrifices to be offered, medicine to be used,
amulets to be worn or tabus to be observed.
If there is an epidemic in a village, for example, the inha
bitants of that village may be required to offer a sacrifice of
propitiation to placate the angry divinity that is believed to
have brought the scourge. In addition, they may be required
to avoid music, dancing, whistling, going out late at night
or when the sun is very hot.
Witchcraft and sorcery are constantly being counteracted.
The priests have many charms and medicines to combat the ma
chinations of witches and sorcerers. These charms and medi
cines are prepared in various forms ; they may be in the form
of rings or amulets or in the form of packages which are seen
hanging at the entrance of a village or a house, or they may
be buried under the floor of a house. In addition, the priests are
believed capable of exposing witches and in this way they
help reveal the secret and render the wicked helpless.
Furthermore, through the help of the priest, the Yoruba
devise means of averting imminent death. When children are

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born, oracles are consulted to

they are likely to be. In conseq
which of the divinities is to
fice in order that the child ma
to the Abiku group (those who
into the world that they wil
soon as they are born or mar
one or two children), the paren
a special sacrifice of substituti
Ipinhun (that is sacrifice offer
Dr. Idowu discusses this predic
his observations under two head
Olodumare to a person at the t
Him prior to his coming into t
to a fatalistic view of life ; th
upon a person by Omo Araiye a
who are believed to have the p
lot, however good it may have be
Whilst the latter can be altered,
terable. All the same, it is rare
that there is a nasty situatio
the offering of sacrifices. Thi
all will be well once certain con
raises the morale of people an
harmony which they love to hav
It should be added, however, t
is a necessary end, it will come when it will come. One of
the Odu recitals confirms this :

Ai de iku,
La nb' Osun;
Ai de iku
La nb'Orisa ;
Bi iku ba de,
Iku ko gb'ebo.

It is when death is not yet ready

That it works to propitiate Osun ;
It is when death is not yet ready

(15) Idowu : op. cit., pp. 173 and 177.

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That it works to propitiate Orisa ;

When death is really come,
Death will not yield to sacrifices.

iii) Joining secret societies.

It is not an uncommon practice among some Yoruba to join

secret societies. One of the reasons why they do so is to build
up a small unit where harmony, wholeness, unity and love can
easily be nurtured. In other words, there is the conviction
that alafia has eluded the world and a smaller world can be
created where members can bind themselves under a secret
oath which, if strictly observed, will create a perfect society
where certain rules of conduct are laid down and forms of
behaviour built up. A noble aim indeed if sincerely pursued !
But, unfortunately, this is not likely to be so.
Investigations reveal that people join these societies in order
that they may have access to some supernatural power like
sorcery, strong medicines and magic to counteract the machi
nations of adversaries. There is also the social aspect. Mem
bers meet regulary, get to know each other and whenever one
is in difficulty and needs help, one easily finds it. Members
of the societies normally give preferential treatment to their
fellow-members where matters like appointment, promotion
and even justice are concerned. To have such influence which
will enhance security in life makes people rush to become
members (16).

iv) Joining the Aladura (prayer) group.

The Yoruba are more practical than theoretical, and they

believe more in the physical than in the metaphysical. When
they pray to ancestors on behalf of a sick person, they expect
him to get well as soon as he offers what the ancestral spirits

Similarly, in the Christian Church, some Yoruba Christians

want to see efficacy in the prayers offered to God in the sense

(16) Members of some of these societies have appealed to me to

become a member and I remember the arguments they normally adduce.
Furthermore, scholars have made references to them in their writings.
See J.O. Lucas : The Religion of the Yorubas, p. 197 ; E.B. Idowu :
Olodumare, p. 150 ; E.G. Parrinder : Religion in an African City, pp. 175
178 and P. Morton-Williams : Ogboni Cult in Africa, vol. XXX, 1960,
p. 364.

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that they want to grant

in the way magic works.
be done but, rather,
is one of the reasons wh
(or mother) churches drift to the churches of Aladura (the
prayer groups of Chrubin and Seraphim as well as the Apos
tolic Church) where it is believed efficacy of prayer is per
ceptible. Men and women who attend these prayer-meetings
tell many stories of healing they have received the blind see,
the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the barren are
pregnant (17).
This desire to go to the Aladura reveals one essential fact
the Yoruba are desirous of enjoying life and of changing, as
quickly as possible, an unpleasant phase to one which is fascin
ating and encouraging.


The Yoruba are conscious of the fact that misfortune,

adversity, illness, etc., disrupt harmony, hence they want to
avoid them as much as is humanly posible. They do not feel
death ought to interfere with life because, to them, life is the
normal condition and death the abnormal. No matter how long
a man lives on earth, the Yoruba still suspect witchcraft or
some other evil forces whenever he dies. This suspicion is
greater still when a youth dies or when an external influence
puts an end to life in a violent manner. But, on the whole, the
death of an aged person is an occasion for rejoicing, whilst
that of a young person is a tragedy.
Painful though death may be, it does not, according to the
Yoruba belief, write finis. Life is not only earthly but also ethe
real. This conception of a second life is a protest against death.
The Yoruba are asking, like St. Paul, death, where is thy
victory? (18). The belief that life continues hereafter is
shown in different ways.

a) Care of the corpse and burial.

When a person dies, the body is given a thorough washing.

(17) Cf. J.D.Y. Peel : Aladura (O.U.P. 1968), pp. 212-215 and E.G. Par
rinder : Religion in an African City (O.U.P. 1953), p. 115.
(18) 1. Cor. 15 : 55.

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In the case of a man, the hair is shaved ; in that of a woman,

it is plaited. The body is then dressed in white apparel.
In days gone by, samples of things that a man used to have
when he was living were buried with him clothes, wives,
slaves, household goods, etc. This was done to equip him for
life in the next world. In addition, he was given money to pay
his transport across the river. He was told :

Ma j'okun, ma j'ekolo
Ohun ti nwon nje lajule orun
Niko ma a ba wen je

Eat neither millepedes nor earthworms ;

What they eat in heaven
Eat with them.

This means he should eat only decent things in heaven

and shows that life continues there : the good eat pleasant
things and the evil, nasty things like millepedes. Other people
have commented on the statement saying :

Ma jokun
Ma je ekolo
Ile aiye ni ti i ba ni'lo

This means that if a person is not to eat nasty things in

heaven, he should live well here. Life beyond depends upon
life here.

b) Reincarnation.

The Yoruba believe that the dead father or mother comes

back to be born like a baby and when a baby boy comes into
the family after the death of a father or grandfather he is
called Babatunde (i.e. Father has come back). I know men
who call their sons Baba mi (My Father) in consequence of this

Similarly, if a baby girl comes after the death of a mother

she is given the name Yetunde or Iyabo (Mother is back again).

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We may call this a partial reincarnation because, despite the

fact that the departed father or mother comes back into life
as a new-born baby, ancestral shrines are still kept and it is
believed that their spirits are present in such places (19).

c) Ancestor worship.

As pointed out earlier, there is a strong belief among the

Yoruba that there is a close link between the present and
past members of the extended family. There is thus communion
and communication going on all the time between the two
groups. Those that have gone to the life beyond are believed
not only to be alive but also to be more powerful than those
on earth because they have been released from human limi
tation. Hence, their children make offerings to keep in touch
with, and call upon, them in times of need.

From the funeral ceremonies and the belief in reincarnation

and ancestor worship, we can conclude

i) that the Yoruba believe in the dual nature of man

body and soul the former being perishable and the latter,
imperishable ;

ii) that death for the deceased is only a change of state;

the essential person (soul) continues to exist and often mani
fests itself in the egungun which is a rite performed by the
male members of the family whereby the departed spirit in in
voked to assume an incarnate form (20) ;

iii) that since the soul is immortal, it can be invoked and

this is what is done when the Yoruba specially request the
egungun (spirit of the departed) to appear ; when the living
hear the voice or see the figure of egungun, there is the feeling
that the departed spirits are back with them and can hear and
grant their requests ;

iv) that the spirit world, though unknown, is accessible to

human appeals.

(19) Cf. P. Morton-Williams : Yoruba Responses to the Fear of

Death in Africa, vol. XXX, 1960, p. 36.
(20) P. Morton-Williams : op. cit., p. 36.

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We may sum up the Yoruba concept of real life in one

of the traditional songs ;

Ka mase ku ni kekere, eni,

Ka mase taraka ka ilo, eji
Ki'le aiye ma ni wa lara, eta,
A tunbotan eni ko sunwon, erin
Ka fomo atata site kailo laiye
Ara mi o darun,
Ojo atisun enia lefa o

This song is a prayer soliciting six blessings from God :

Not to die young is the first ;

Never to be wretched before death comes is second ;
Not to experience hardship in life is third ;
That our last days may be pleasant, the fourth ;
To leave behind good children,
This is the fifth ;
The occasion of the last sleep is the sixth.

We see, then, that to the Yoruba this life is a preparation

for life to come. Hence, they say

Aiye lajo
Orun nilo.

The world is a foreign land

Heaven is home.

Judging from what has been said so far, we see that tra
ditional Yoruba philosophy covers both this life and the life
to come. One is regarded as a preparation for the other. But
one may ask if the present generation of Yoruba thinks of
this ideal as the present wave of daylight armed robberies, ju
venile delinquency and other vices which are characteristic of

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our present society, are not compatible with the traditional

Yoruba philosophy of life. Western economic forces have pro
foundly changed both the structure of traditional Nigerian
societies and the perspectives of the people, including the
Yoruba. Monetary wealth has gradually become the key to
status and the criterion for deciding prosperity. Our young
men and women have made acquiring a University education
and building more houses the be-all and end-all of life. The au
thor has nothing against sane progress but, in seeking progress,
we must not be blind to the essentials in our culture and its
traditional ethical teaching which emphasize a simple and
sober life here as a preparation for the happy life beyond


Lecturer, Department of Religious
Studies, University of Ibadan.

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