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Posts Tagged ‘Yoruba’

A few semesters ago, I took a class called “Mass Media and Minorities”. University of Wisconsin journalism professor, Hemant Shah took the class through the history of reporting on minorities in the U.S., the prevalence (or lack of) minorities in newsrooms and critiques of these areas. He presented a few different metaphors for race relations in the U.S. Of course we’ve all heard of the “melting pot” metaphor; the United States is a melting pot, a harmonious fusion of immigrants from all over the world. Professor Shah, like many other academics, is skeptical of this argument and presents an alternative view: a stew. The U.S. is more like a stew than a melting pot: while all the different ethnicities blend together in a cohesive way, you still have the independent chunks that stand alone and don’t blend in. On one level all the people who make up the U.S. intermingle and cohabit the country, but in many ways exist in segregated communities with little to no mixing.

Immigration is a popular issue these days. We see news reports about it all the time, particularly what 2012 presidential contenders think about the U.S. Mexican border. But what about the people who fly across the Atlantic from Africa? In my experience interacting with the Yoruba population in the U.S. I’ve noticed how they live in tight-knit communities, little microcosms of Lagos. It is staggering that 450,000 Yoruba people live in the Houston area alone. I’ve visited communities like this in Detroit, Maryland and New York.

In pursuit of continuing my journalism career post college graduation (the ceremony is just 18 days away!) I want to visit these communities and find out how they operate, how Yorubas integrate into U.S. culture and how they retain their own culture. Yorubas make up a huge part of the immigrant population in the U.S. and so few people know about it. So over the next month I will start a series of investigative reports about the Yorubas in the U.S., a large, vibrant chunk of thr country.

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North of Lagos has been a powerful communication tool connecting me to interesting Nigerians world wide. Ijeoma Emenanjo is one of those people. Working towards his masters at Harvard, he also is the founder of a media organization called Verity Africa. He found me on my blog and told me about his interest in working with me as part of it. The purpose of Verity Africa is to tell deep, investigative stories about interesting, news-making Africans. He tells them in the form of 30-minute documentary videos. He picks people who are unique, challenging and different. I guess I fit those characteristics as a white girl speaking Yoruba. He met me in Nigeria and we went to a market in Lekki, then a small town not too far from Ibadan. Check out the page on Facebook and watch the latest video of me in Igbo Ora famous for the highest twin birth rate in the world.

Click to see me on Verity Africa

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Wednesday was my last day in Ibadan. I had a last meal of amala with my host mom’s delicious ground nut soup. I cried when I said goodbye to my host family. I feel like a real member of the family and it was difficult to leave them. I know we will see again soon. I am in Lagos for now until I leave Nigeria on Tuesday. I will go to Europe for a few weeks and then finally return home to Chicago. For now, I am enjoying the fast-paced life of Lagos and suffering without a car. Èkó ò ní bàjé o!!!

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Wikipedia in Yoruba

I was playing around on Wikipedia, a favorite past time of many college students, and just happened to notice the Yoruba translation option (I have no idea why I never discovered it before). Here is the Wikipedia page on Nigeria translated into Yoruba. Who knows, if I can’t find a job after college maybe I can work for Wikipedia translating pages into Yoruba.

The Nigeria Wikipedia page in Yoruba

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I was sitting on a bench mindlessly swatting flies away from my feet, waiting. I had already greeted all the people in the area and was just observing at this point, waiting for the tailor to finish sewing a dress. A mother was seated on the concrete porch leaning against the pillar eating and feeding her son. She took a piece of meat from the bowl and handed it to her son. He couldn’t have been more than 2 years old. He extended his little arm to grab the beef. His mom swatted it away but still held the meat in her hand for him to take. He reached again, again she swatted. Why can’t he take the meat? She grabbed his right arm and plopped the meat in his palm. Ooooh, he tried to take it with his left hand. Bad boy.

Yorubas have a complex about the left hand, owó osì. They believe it is the dirty hand used for dirty jobs like wiping after easing yourself. If you give someone a present with your left hand, especially an old person, he or she will give you an evil glare and refuse the gift. Accepting things with your left hand is taboo too. Always shake with your right hand. Yorubas have respect for the right hand as the hand you eat with and do other important jobs. The left hand gets no respect. Two of the students on our program are lefties and eating in public always brings many questions. This is not to say all Yorubas are right handed. Lefties exist, but they are not too common. In an effort to revive the use of the left hand and improve its reputation, Yorubas call it owó aláàfià, which means hand of peace. For the record, I am a righty.

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Nigerians–particularly Yorubas–love to celebrate. Birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, naming ceremonies, funerals are all occasions for huge parties complete with plenty of food, deafening music, matching decorations that extend to the smallest details and all sorts of fanfare. An intimate dinner or cocktail party among friends doesn’t align with Nigerian culture. The bigger the better for the Nigerian party. Lucky for the sociable type these parties happen often, maybe too often. The average Nigerian adult has attended hundreds of weddings. While each of the aforementioned celebrations have qualities that make it unique, they all share a common order of events. They all start with an opening prayer. The MC then introduces the important guests seated at the high table. Caterers pass out a plethora of drinks (juice, minerals, malt beverages, bottles of wine, beer and everyone gets a bottle of water) and plates of food (usually rice with moinmoin and meat, or iyan egusi, or amala) to each guest. Then the celebrant dances while family and friends spray him or her with money. The celebrant’s friends stand around to pick up the 50, 100, 200, 500 Naira notes that fall by the celebrant’s feet. Then the MC or someone else gives a closing prayer, guests collect their gifts and go home with full stomachs and poorer hearing than they arrived with.

wedding decorations in Nigeria

An example of a brown and orange color scheme at a wedding party I attended. Bottles of minerals, boxes of juice abundant on every table.


So it went at the traditional Yoruba wedding I attended last weekend. People call this wedding the engagement. The church ceremony followed by a big party is the wedding party. So I celebrated the marriage of Esther and ‘Tosin in the traditional Yoruba style that has been a bit modernized by the imposing presence of microphones and photographers. While studying Yorùbá at University of Wisconsin, I happened to choose marriage among the Yoruba as a research paper topic and I am posting the 20-page paper I wrote, all in Yoruba of course, for any Yoruba readers to see if they are interested. I think the wedding will be best described by the photos I took.
Marriage among the Yorubas (part 1 of 2)
Marriage among the Yorubas (part 2 of 2)

guests at a Yoruba engagement

Guests at the engagement sit under tents out of the hot sun, chatting, eating and drinking. Everyone is dressed in native Yoruba attire, iro, buba and gele around the head for the woman, and buba with sokoto for the man. The guests at the engagement will be fewer than the guests at the wedding party.

yoruba wedding bride walking down the aisle

The bride and her friends walking her down the aisle, singing and dancing the whole time.

Yoruba wedding the groom waits for the bride coming down the aisle

As the bride walks down the aisle with her friends, the husband sits under the beautifully decorated canopy waiting for his wife to greet him.

Photographers don't miss any facial expression at Nigerian parties. They are always in the celebrants faces taking way more pictures than needed. Here the bride and her entourage walks her down the aisle. The women dressed in cream and red are in her bridal party.

Yoruba bride and groom with groom's family

The bride and groom, oko and iyawo, pose with the groom's family. At a Yoruba wedding, everyone in the groom's family wears the same color cloth. The same goes for the bride's family. These colors are different to differentiate the two families that are coming together through marriage. According to Yoruba beliefs, marriage is not just between two people, but two families.


women playing sekere at a yoruba wedding

Women playing a traditional Yoruba instrument called the Shekere as the bride dances her way to greet her husband.


dowry at a yoruba wedding

The dowry displayed for all the guests to see. The groom's family gives the bride and her family many gifts for the marriage. Here we see yams, bananas, other food stuffs and oil. The bride's family is seated on the right. The bride and groom's family sit on opposite sides of the aisle.

esther dancing getting sprayed

Esther, the bride, dancing with her new husband, 'Tosin. Fifty Naira notes fall in her arms from the Nigerian tradition of spraying money on the celebrants.

Yoruba women in aso ebi on the husbands side

Member's of the groom's party dressed in aso ebi (see earlier post for description). They are wearing a buba (the shirt), iro (the wrapper skirt) and a gele (head wrapper).


closing prayer at a yoruba wedding

One of the bride's maids praying for the new couple.

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Weekly Òwe

Without a reason, the revered father cannot get Gonorrhea because they are supposed to be abstinent. You use this proverb to explain that there is a good reason for something. You might be wearing a wool jacket during the summer and someone asks you ‘Why?!’ This proverb applies in that situation.

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Yesterday I made significant strides to becoming more Yoruba. Keegan and I went to the Cultural Center of Ibadan where we are supposed to be a month into our internship. When we arrived yesterday afternoon, the directors of the government-run center had no work for us not to mention a plan of what we are going to do for the next month and a half. We spent 30 minutes deciding that we will split our work into working with the performing arts department for 2 weeks and the visual arts department for 2 weeks. That was our ‘work’ for the day. Outside of the center we stumbled upon a dance troupe practicing for a competition later that day. Keegan, my teacher Segun, and I stood around, pretending to play a ‘bata’, watching until Sango (pronounced Shango) commanded me to join the team’s practice. I seized the moment and tried, somewhat unsuccessfully to follow the sharp, fast gyrating movements.

I'm on the far left struggling to follow the fast dance moves.

The girls and 2 men in the team didn’t seem to mind my presence and befriended Keegan and I after. I became fast friends with a 20-year-old girl named Precious. I recited a few proverbs, told her my Yoruba names (which she did not believe) and after 2 minutes she was stuck to my side, her arm interlocked with mine the rest of the day.

Precious and I. The girls helped me 'we gele' to blend in with the Yoruba culture.

It is common for girls and boys to hold hands here. Strangers are always touching me or holding my hand for a bit longer than is culturally accepted in the U.S.

After the dance rehearsal we went to the competition with the team. We sat and talked with them while they got dressed in traditional Yoruba clothes to perform, speaking Yoruba the entire time. This was so exhilarating for me because it was the first chance I had to speak Yoruba comfortably with new people my age outside of University of Ibadan walls. We sat down outside under the shade of a tree to watch the performance.

Sitting under a tree to keep out of the sun at the dance competition.

At any Yoruba gathering, it is customary to invite the important guests up to pray before the event starts, give a few greetings and opening words. The MC asked Keegan and I to do a greeting. I took the mike first and welcomed people then said a Yoruba phrase “Laisi ilu, ko si ijo,” translated to “without drumming there is no dancing,” then encouraged us to watch the dancing. This resulted in the MC making me dance for the audience. The drums played and I danced…

I decided to let my inhibitions go and dance for the audience at the dance competition.


All of the introductions, prayers and greetings took much too long and we had to leave before the dancers performed. Dance is a big part of Yoruba culture and knowing how to dance well, in addition to knowing the language and proverbs, is really impressive to Yoruba people. Shango is coming to our center to give us dance lessons and we will also learn at our internship at the Cultural Center. For now I might be making a fool of myself, but they will respect me soon enough.

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It’s all happening.

After two months of waiting, deciphering confusing bureaucratic emails and gloating over the fact I would be in Madison–not Nigeria–next year, it turns out the trip is back on! I will be going to Nigeria for fall and spring semester this year. I leave my hometown of Chicago on September 5th for a two-day orientation  in Washington D.C., then ship out for Nigeria the night of September 8th.

I received this news in a quite nonchalant email from the President of American Councils in late July. Before posting the news here (for the whole world to see), I had to make sure it was real so I wouldn’t put everyone, including myself, through another emotional roller coaster…and it’s true.

Essentially what happened is UW decided not to sponsor the program after commissioning an investigation into University of Ibadan which turned out positive. Gary Sandefur, one of the UW Deans overseeing this whole situation, had a letter drafted to send us students in the program saying that the report came out positive and UW would support our study abroad program there. He sent this letter out to other UW staff involved and magically, overnight, the letter turned negative, claiming the report said Ibadan was not safe enough and we could not go under UW auspices. That is the email I received mid-July, to be followed up with a condolence email from UW Chancellor, Biddy Martin. My hopes were crushed at that point. I started preparing for the prospect of being in Madison this fall: finding a place to live, and classes to take. More emails came from high-ups at NSEP and UW. More hope crushing ensued but I never lost determination to figure out how to get there some day.

Two weeks later, an emailed tagged IMPORTANT arrived in my inbox. It was from Dan Davidson, the President of American Councils, the sponsoring organization for the program in Ibadan. It said the trip is back on for fall and spring semester. I read it, closed my computer and went to teach a software class at my summer job. My head was spinning.

As I understand it now, we are back to the original plan of going as a non-UW study abroad program and transferring credit through Bryn Mawr College. The program specifics in Ibadan are the same– we are still doing an internship, taking clases at UI and living with a family. Originally there were 7 of us going, now there are 4. We will miss the three students who won’t be with us. My professors have assured me that the whole experience will only be better now because everyone in Ibadan kept preparing for our arrival, even though the trip was “temporarily” cancelled.

So it looks like all is not lost, in fact much is gained. I will be actively blogging North of Lagos after all. Stay tuned…

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On Friday, June 11–three days before I was supposed to leave for Nigeria–I received devastating news: my summer study abroad program at the University of Ibadan is cancelled. The feelings of shock, denial, sadness and complete disappointment I felt were overwhelming. Abike, another girl in my program told me over the phone as I was driving home from saying goodbye to all of my friends in Madison. I almost had to pull off the road. I felt everything I planned for for semesters slip away in a matter of minutes. Earlier that day I had received an email with a description of the host family I would be meeting a couple days later–Abike’s news did not seem real because we had no answers. Answers did not come until four days later when my Yoruba professor, Antonia Schleicher sent us an e-mail with a semblance of what had been going on behind the scenes.

The major players in the equation that led to the cancellation are the University of Wisconsin and National Security Education Program. NSEP sponsors the Language Flagship, which is the fellowship the seven other students and I have that was (and someday will be) sending us to Nigeria. Like I said in the video, members of NSEP and UW administrators had a meeting on Friday June 11–the same day I received info about my host family–where UW said it would not send any UW students to Ibadan under UW auspices because they felt the situation there is unsafe. There are a few perplexing things about this decision. First, why did they wait until 3 bloody days before to decide? I still don’t have a good answer to that question, but I am investigating. Also, there is the question on why UW had the power to do this. Since May, we knew the year-long program in Nigeria was not a UW sponsored study abroad program because they said they did not have enough time to evaluate it. We were all set to withdraw from UW and go to Nigeria planning to transfer credits from University of Ibadan to Bryn Mawr College, then to UW. The plan was legitimate and UW even said it would work fine. So then why now are they telling us we cannot go because of safety concerns when we would not be insured by UW anyway? NSEP really wants to see this program happen and so they made an agreement with UW that essentially says ‘OK, we’ll cancel the program for now and give you a month to do your investigation into University of Ibadan to determine that it is safe and people live well there.’ So depending on what UW says come July 16 we could be on a plane to Nigeria within a couple weeks or be waiting indefinitely for NSEP to figure out a way to get us there through another university.

I was depressed at first and unable to find happiness. A week later, I am doing much better and my spirits are high. I’ve reckoned that another few months in the U.S. is not all that bad.

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