Clarifying Common Misunderstandings about Yoruba Culture among the African Diaspora. Part 1

What is Authentically Yoruba

Engaging in online discussions, particularly within the African Diaspora, often involves heated debates about the authenticity and validity of various aspects. Unfortunately, these conversations tend to devolve into bullying and posturing, vwith individuals vying to establish themselves as the ultimate authority on true Yoruba traditions while disregarding genuine seekers of knowledge. Rather than promoting enlightenment, these exchanges become battles of dominance, where the loudest voice triumphs rather than the one with the accurate information.

Unfortunately, having a strong authoritative voice or platform doesn't guarantee actual expertise. In many cases, those who assert dominance are plagued by insecurities because they lack substantial knowledge about what they claim to understand. Merely visiting Nigeria a few times or having limited exposure to a specific family, Baba, or region can lead to a false sense of expertise. While such experiences can be beneficial, they often result in individuals presenting themselves as all-knowing authorities on everything Yoruba. This leads to confusion, particularly when someone who has learned from a different area or teacher suggests an alternative perspective.

Consider the analogy of America, where it's understood that not all Americans or African Americans hold the same beliefs on any given topic. However, when it comes to Yoruba culture, there is a presumption of homogeneity, assuming that all Yoruba people share identical views. In doing so, we unknowingly adopt a Western approach, failing to recognize our own biases.

I’d like to unravel some of these misconceptions and offer a wider viewpoint of Yoruba culture. By examining the rich diversity within the Yoruba community and questioning our own ethnocentric Western or Nationalist assumptions, we can bridge the gap between cultural understanding and Ifa Orisa practices among the African diaspora.

 Myth: Yoruba is not one ancient ethnic group that existed thousands of years ago. The term Yoruba only came into popular use with the introduction of the Yoruba Bible and Dictionary in the early 1800’s. It was a market language that tied multiple ethnic groups together in the same region. The term Yoruba did not exist 300 years ago. Since Orisa like Sango, Osun, Obatala, Ogun, Orunmila, etc lived human lives in around 1200-1400 AD, they had never heard of the term Yoruba and there are no Ifa or Orisa Odu verses that mention Yoruba at all. Instead they mention specific smaller ethnic groups like Bini, Ijebu, Ife, etc. The entire region according to maps in the 1500-1700  was referred to as  Benin! This is not the Benin Republic of today..but the Region of what is now Southwest Nigeria and Yorubaland.

Map from 1570

Those that are considered Yoruba now consist of many different smaller ethnic groups who came under Oyo during its political height. Each one has its own dialect, cultural practices, and approaches. Each also inhabits a specific region. It’s why if you go to Oyo, their approach may be different from Ife and so on. Ife is considered the oldest. Oyo is considered most popular especially among the African diaspora. There was mixing and integration of practices over many hundreds of years as people traveled and migrated though. The mixing extended to other regions sharing and incorporating what was useful and making their own. For instance Yemoja was strongest In Abeokuta area and Osun was not. Osun was strongest in Osogbo. So a diviner may suggest Yemoja in one region where Osun might me suggested in another.  It’s ironic that people in the diaspora will argue online about mixing practices now when Yoruba practices are quite fluid.

Map of Yorubaland by ethnic group and region

They say there are hundreds but here is a list of the most common ethnic groups within Yoruba or associated with Yoruba today.

  1. Oyo

  2. Awori

  3. Owo

  4. Oworo

  5. Ijebu,

  6. Ekiti

  7. Ijesa

  8. Ifẹ

  9. Ondo

  10. Akoko

  11. Egbado

  12. Ibarapa

  13. Egba

  14. Ilaje

  15. Remo

  16. Kaba

  17. Ketu,

  18. Sabe

  19. Idaisa

  20. Ana, Yoruba Togo

  21. Mahi

  22. Igbomina

  23. Ibolo

  24. Yewa

  25. Okun (Owe, Oworo, Igbede, Ijumu, Ikiri, Bunu, and Yagba village units)

  26. Yoruba-Ohori (Benin Republic

  27. Krio Yoruba Sierra Leone

There are also strong relationships with neighboring ethnic groups such as Igbo, Nupe, Itsekiri, Edo, Adja, Fon, Mahi, and other Ewe speaking people. All share common spiritual beliefs in some areas while differing significantly in others.

This gives you some idea of the level of diversity of what Yoruba actually can involve.

We have to understand that some of the need to identify with such a rigid standard comes from our own ancestral experience in captivity and the trauma derived from it. Unconsciously it’s being projected on to the Yoruba culture just as it was imposed on us. For those in Spanish speaking regions, they had to synchronize with the rigid standards of Catholicism in order to survive. That level of extreme fundamentalism helped while in captivity but is now limiting us as we are now free to explore what was also forgotten.

For those who are African nationalist, they were strong enough to break through racist religious regimes to find common unity. But that approach seems to force us into a “one Africa” approach that is not actually African at all because there are so many ethnic groups and people in Africa. The only group of people in the world who consist of many African ethnic groups…are us! That may certainly hold keys to how to create harmony and unity on a global scale, but attempting to make everyone Yoruba, or to make Yoruba the standard for everything, or make Yoruba all one way will leave us confused more than ever because it simply does not exist.

So what do we need to do? We need to stop trying to fit Yoruba into a neat little box and be open to learning beyond what you think. Be willing to focus on what we have in common rather than thinking that someone who does it differently is “wrong”. Be more tolerant to variances in lineages because there is something to learn from all. 

Categories: Practical Odu Ifa