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Yoruba Families

Oja Ale

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. This is palm oil. It reduces the harsh taste of pepper in the soup. May the harsh impact of difficult times be ameliorated;
  4. 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;
  5. This is bitter kola. It means that you will live long and see your children achieve great things in your lifetime;
  6. 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;
  7. This is the Bible/Koran. It is the holy book of power. May your faith provide direction to you in life;
  8. This is candle. It lights the way. May the word of God provide the light that will guide you through life;
  9. 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.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsYoruba Families - Yoruba Culture And The Meaning Of Marriage, Steps That Lead To Marriage, Oja Ale, Co-wife And Sibling Rivalry