Printer Friendly

Body Size in Indigenous Oral Knowledge among the Yoruba in Southwestern Nigeria.


Modern discourses on human health emphasize the importance of body size. Indeed, body size related concepts such as obesity have necessarily drawn attention and remained primary among modern health issues. Obesity is simply the accumulation of fat in the human body. Obesity is globally pandemic (Egger and Swinburn, 1997). It heightens the chance of untimely death, increases the possibility of medical illness and complications and threatens quality of life (Villareal et al., 2012).

Obesity is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and several types of cancers (Wadden, Brownell and Foster, 2002). Using body mass index of 30 (a standard measurement of obesity), obesity increases the risk of mortality by up to 30% (ibid). Incidentally, people of color or people outside industrialized nations are often assumed to be favorably disposed towards increased body size. Such assumption appears to depict an insubstantial exposition of body size. This can only benefit from a scrutiny of the vast, indigenous oral resources of people of color, the Yoruba inclusive. The philosophies of Yoruba people, much like that of other African people, are subsumed in varieties of oral resources (this also includes non-verbal symbols e.g, Yoruba images). The Yoruba are a poetic nation. Spontaneous and unrehearsed oral performances are characteristic of everyday life, both by the professional and otherwise. Social functions like birth, marriage and funeral are remarkably marked with sonorous songs. In these oral performances lies the wealth of indigenous knowledge. "Right from the pre-colonial era, the Yoruba nation has evolved sophisticated forms of indigenous philosophy which have guided beliefs about the environment and social relations up to contemporary times" (Omobowale, 2008:205). Interestingly, these oral philosophies are of varying categories, including Ifa literary corpus, proverbs, oriki, rara chants, etc. However, sometimes they are hard to distinguish and can be interwoven such that a particular speech can resemble proverbs, sayings, chants, oriki or incantations at the same time. For instance, Schwab (1955) stated that chronicles of a lineage are conserved in rara (ritual chants) and oriki. Barber (1984) also asserted as follows:
Oriki also make up the bulk of innumerable chants, each with its own
name and vocal style: iwi, rara, ijala, olele, alamo, ekun iyawo are
examples. Each chant can be considered a genre in its own right...
Proverbs can be turned into oriki if they were favorite utterances of
the person being saluted, or if they can be interpreted in a way that
sheds light on his/her character. Oriki appear in ese Ifa, the poetry
of divination, whenever a divination priest of an earlier age is named.
Sometimes it is not possible to determine which genre is incorporating
which: there are passages which appear both in Ifa verses and in oriki
orile.... Yoruba oral literature in general appears like a vast stock
of verbal materials- themes, formulas, stories, poetic idioms, which
can float through the permeable boundaries of all the genres and be
incorporated into them to fulfill different functions. Genres freely
incorporate parts of other genres, with much sharing and borrowing of

The following sub sections are discussions of some of these oral resources:

Ifa Literary Corpus

Ifa literary corpus occupies a central position in the records of Yoruba frame of reference and the channel through which other spiritual bodies express themselves (Abimbola, 1975; Harris, 1992). It is an embodiment of the "history of earth and heaven the moral and physical laws with which Olodumare governs the universe" (Abimbola, 1975: 389). Ifa is "an ancient monument where the culture of the Yoruba is encapsulated, enthroned and entombed. Also, Ifa is seen as a practice which embodies Yoruba beliefs, history, sociology and ecology. .Yoruba practices and cultural paradigm could be discerned, studied and appreciated from many Ifa verses" (Olademo, 2009: 49).

Ifa literary corpus is made up of sixteen major segments, referred to as Odu. "A le fi awon Odu we iwe nla kookan ti o ni ori ati ese pupo" (Abimbola, 2006:10), meaning that the Odus can be likened to a big book each with many chapters and sections. Apart from these major sixteen odus, there are two hundred and forty sub Odus, resulting in two hundred and fifty six Odus of Ifa (Olademo, 2009). The custodians of Ifa are the Babalawo (male) or Iyanifa (female), who pass through scrupulous training in the form of memorizing the Odus of Ifa (ibid). Many times, the contents of these Odus, known as ese Ifa (literarily meaning leg of Ifa) are recited in a songlike manner. Such songs are uniquely performed by Ifa worshippers, during which "nothing must be improvised, all is laid down by tradition and learned by heart. The Ifa worshippers are the keepers of the Yoruba oracle" (Beier, 1956: 27). Meanwhile, Longe (1983) opined that errors might have occurred in the verbal conveyance of Ifa literary corpus.

Yoruba Proverbs

A popular and much referenced Yoruba proverb sums up the major essence of proverbs among Yoruba people:
Owe l'esin oro        Proverbs are the horses of words (or ideas)
Oro l'esin owe        Words are the horses of proverbs
B' oro ba sonu        If word are lost,
Owe la fi n'w a       Proverbs are used to look for it
(Harris, 1992;
Delano, 1979).

Proverbs make up the key "structural materials of the language" (Delano, 1979: ix). Explanation of attitudes, behaviors, motivations, ideas, salient issues, and other issues, is the hallmark of proverbs. Proverbs are also prescriptive, guiding human action in a variety of situations. Further:
Proverbs are sometimes used in order to avoid giving a blunt, direct
answer which is a necessary thing to do when expressing one's opinion
before elders, even when such opinion has been directly solicited. Most
frequently, the proverb is used in bringing out clearly the meaning of
obscure points in argument. Thus, to the Yoruba, 'the proverb is the
driving force in a discussion'. If an argument becomes entangled, the
proverb is used to restore clarity (Fadipe, 1970: 302).

Proverbs possess the quality of "normative influence", they confer implications on social situations and they provide guidance on appropriate course of action (Omobowale, 2008: 213). "Proverbs reinforce the value systems of communities, and often were used by the African people to admonish community members through indirect messages that instruct but do not necessarily belittle... proverbs function at much deeper levels and can provide the medium for the explication of esoteric concepts" (Harris, 1992: 311). Proverbs and proverbial sayings are used in different settings or circumstances. A recent account attests to such use even in highly literate and formal settings (McIntosh, 2009). However, the appropriateness of each proverb depends on the context. Each proverb is not to be used out of context (Ojoade, 1983). Among the Yoruba, the use of proverb is prized so much that only elders have the original right to use them. Younger persons are obliged to seek permissions from older persons before they pronounce proverbs, especially where such elders are seated. The wealth of knowledge provided by Yoruba proverbs certainly needs to be continually acknowledged, to avert monumental wastage of knowledge and understanding.


Oriki is a combination of two words, ori--head and ki--praise. Hence, literarily, oriki is to praise one's head. However, the significance of oriki goes beyond this. Ori itself attracts a lot of significance among Yoruba people (Lawal, 2001; Barber, 1981; Adogame, 2000; Morton-Williams, 1960; Abimbola, 2004; Awolalu, 1973). Oriki has been described as "attributive poetry" (Barber, 1981: 728-729); "African oral poetry" (Barber, 1984: 498); "attributive epithets" (Barber, 1984: 503); "head praise" (Lawal, 2001: 501). It is probably the most widespread variety of song, but not an uninterrupted form of song that pools characteristics of a person especially in the form of proverbial sayings (Beier, 1956). Indeed, oriki assembles every possible dimension of an individual: lineage, spouse, children, preferred foods, behavioral tendency, attitudes, successes and even failures. Barber (1984) also concurred with this claim when he asserted that oriki "can indicate undesirable qualities as well as desirable and which are seen as being in some way the key to a subject's essential nature", further, oriki can refer to "qualities of character or physical appearance, which can be attributed to anyone to whom they are appropriate".

Interestingly, oriki are not just about individuals, they can be about lineages, towns, Orisa (gods); even certain occupations have their peculiar oriki. Animals, plants, and even lifeless items possess oriki, although, those of people and orisa are most usually used (Barber, 1984). Hence, we have oriki idile (praise poem of lineages) and oriki ilu (praise poems of towns), oriki orisa (praise poems of orisa), etc. Oriki plays significant psychosocially related functions in Yoruba society even in contemporary times and will most likely continue to play such roles even in the distant future. More significantly, oriki, especially at the time it is sung, spurs an individual or a group to great delights and readiness to act. It is not uncommon to see people demonstrate grand generosity at such occasions. The quote below further demonstrates the power of oriki:
By uttering a subject's oriki, one is calling upon or unlocking hidden
powers; the activity of naming is thought of as being effectual. Human
subjects react to the utterance of their oriki with deep gratification
and with an enhancement of their aura which is sometimes actually
visible in their physical behaviour (Barber, 1984: 503).

Oriki is a potent motivator for the average Yoruba man or woman. They are used daily, especially the short versed, for casual greetings, to please a person or to calm a person especially at times of dispute. In addition, oriki are highly featured at solemn ceremonies. Shared oriki may not necessarily indicate ties of kinship, though it frequently produces unusual attitude of friendship (Schwab, 1955). The performance of oriki takes cognizance of constituted social expectations such as respect for elders making the performer to recite the oriki of older persons first.

At this point, the validity of oral resources, including Ifa literary corpus, proverbs and oriki is of concern. This is the next point of discussion.

Cogency of Yoruba Oral Traditions and Resources as Valid Knowledge

The fluid nature of oral traditions makes it open to distortion and makes its permanence questionable. Nevertheless, many scholars have studied and endorsed the cogency of oral traditions as valid knowledge (Vansina, 1985; Lawal, 2001; Irele, 2001 and Omobowale, 2008). Yoruba oral traditions are rich sources of historical knowledge which is central to reconstituting society. Oral tradition symbolize communications from the ancient times and therefore can contribute to the reconstruction of the past, as long as they are employed with care and correlated with autonomous evidence (Vansina, 1985). Irele (2001: 11) asserted that "the tradition of orality remains predominant and serves as a central paradigm for various kinds of expression on the (African) continent" (bracket ours). Indeed, Yoruba oral traditions are true reflection of shared positions of the Yoruba society as majority of the people participate in its creation (Barber, 1984).

However, oral traditions have also been questioned by actors who undermine the capacity of African people to discern, logically assemble thoughts and attain cognitive clarity. Marzagora (2015: 1) concurred to this position with the assertion that "oral literature has been outright eliminated from the definition of world literature... on the implicit assumption, it seems, that it is not 'worldly' or 'global' enough, or perhaps not 'literary' enough". In another instance, proverbs have been described as " tokens of vulgar knowledge" (Shapin, 2001: 753 qtd. in Omobowale, 2008: 206).

Much of this pessimism is the result of general science wars which presently reverberate through the social sciences and humanities. In addition, the social dynamics of philosophizing or theorizing leaves much to be desired. In a world dominated by metropolises, ideas of value cannot be said to have originated from a dominated, less metropolitan groups. This scenario probably motivated Connell (1997: 1511) to pose a big question: "Why is Classical Theory Classical?" With a narrowed concern about the discipline of Sociology, Connell (1997: 1518) answered this question by asserting that the canons of sociological theory were made out of a host of reasons unconnected with the content of the theories themselves: "...the time and place where the discipline of sociology was created take a new significance. The locales were the urban and cultural centers of the major imperial powers at the high tide of modern imperialism. They were the 'metropole'.... to the larger colonial world". The relationship between the science of society and the social forces of colonialism and imperialism is a very strong one. Connell opined that "this fact is crucial in understanding the content and method of sociology as well as the discipline's cultural significance" (ibid). These contentions by Connell (1997) may well explain the aversion towards African oral traditions and resources.

The resistance of Africa's domination in the social sciences as advocated by several scholars makes it pertinent that African oral resources are maximally tapped and documented (1). Indeed, politics is dynamically related with the poor acknowledgement of African oral literature so far. These oral resources attract little or no review, a situation Barber (1984) similarly perceived as being borne out of African's under-developed condition, and a manifestation of class struggles. According to Barber (1984: 497):
If there has been no developed criticism of African oral literature so
far, the reason is to be found in the political situation of oral
literature in general, and within this, more particularly, in the
nature of the critical conventions applied to it. Oral literature
everywhere has been or is being marginalized with the displacement and
impoverishment of its bearers, the illiterate peasantry. In Africa,
literacy and adoption of the language and culture of the metropolitan
ex-colonial powers go together and are the means of access to the
ruling class. The formal education system, which regulates the
recruitment of this class, trains students in a tradition which places
a higher value on written than on oral texts and which exposes them to
only one critical tradition: that mainstream tradition which developed
in metropolitan countries in conjunction with and to a large extent in
justification of the establishment of written texts as the predominant
literary form....

Indeed, Africa's indigenous knowledge ought to contribute significantly to the general pool of knowledge. Irele (2001: xvi) asserted that "the recognition of orality as a valid expressive medium can be seen . to be a responsibility that is incumbent upon African literary scholars to promote". This is especially true of notions attributing African people. While the biomedical literature affirms obesity (arbitrarily, large body size) as a major risk factor in the development of chronic illnesses, paradoxically, it is popularly held, even in academic quarters, that African society culturally endorse large body size. Yet, the analysis of indigenous African (Yoruba inclusive) knowledge relating to body size is seemingly nonexistent. Such anecdotal construction of reality can only benefit from contextually sensitive exploration of cultural perception, motives and philosophies. Hence, the general objective of this article is to describe the proclivity of Yoruba indigenous oral knowledge towards body size. This objective was addressed by probing and elucidating:

* Yoruba concepts used to denote body sizes,

* Ifa corpus relating to body sizes,

* Yoruba proverbs and sayings relating to body sizes including the small and the large.


The design of this work was ethnographic and descriptive. Participants were drawn from urban and rural areas in Oyo (Ibadan, Tesi-Apata and Otamakun) and Osun (Osogbo and Ile- Ife), two Yoruba states in southwestern Nigeria. Inclusion criteria were being Yoruba, 18 years and older, resident in the community and willingness to participate. Data collection featured 42 in-depth interviews (IDIs), 8 focus group discussions (FGDs) and 18 key informant interviews (KIIs). The major questions that participants were asked centered around the following:

* Words that Yoruba people use in denoting body sizes.

* Yoruba proverbs, idioms and sayings relating to body sizes.

* Ifa corpus relating to body size (this was enquired among Babalawo only).

Participant's body size (small/large) was depicted through unobtrusive observation with the use of the six photographic silhouettes (Holdsworth et al., 2004). This work was approved by the UI/UCH Institutional review board for ethical clearance (assigned number: UI/EC/10/0154). Data analysis began with repetitive reading of transcripts. Coding was done using Nvivo software (version 8). The coding was essentially inductive in character. The influence of participant's gender, structural location (urban versus rural) and body size on their contributions were interrogated using coding query but this did not reflect any considerable influence on participant's representations.


Characteristics of research participants

The range of participant's age was 25 to 70 while their mean age was 43.7. Males were 49.3% while females were 50.7% of participants. Urban residents constituted 52.1% while rural residents were 47.9% of total participants. These indicate a fair representation in terms of both gender and structural location. Participants categorized as having large body were 30.6% while 69.4% were classified as having small body size.

Concepts used to denote body sizes

There are quite a number of concepts employed to denote body sizes. The concepts used to refer to largely sized person are referenced in the following data from IDI:
The largely sized person is simply said to "sanra"--fat
People with large body size like me are called "ayiluko", that is what
they call us. They will say see how he/she is, with a chubby (rumu
rumu) body.

Some group discussants corroborated these concepts in the data below:
Orobo, arabambi these are used to refer to fat people.
Participants were probed: are they derogatory languages?
That will depend on the context. If they say fine "orobo" or "orobo"
t'o fine, that is honoring. But when you say you this orobo (iwo orobo
yi), then it is an insult.
People who are fat are referred to as "abo mi lara bi aboyun" - as
plump as the pregnant.

Some key informants also recounted some of these concepts:
The largely sized are called "alomilara"--someone who has water in his
or her body.
They call them as such, rather than say that they are fat.
There is "ayiluko" for someone with big body size

These concepts, including sanra, alomilara, abo mi lara bi aboyun, a yo bi o ni ya and ayiluko are largely descriptive. Rumu rumu, like sanra, are adjectives meant to qualify fatness. The more recent concept is "orobo", and it does hold meaning. Data shows that the meaning they imply will depend on the context. For instance, a group discussant reported the following:
My daughter comes home these days to say that she does not want to eat
again. She claims that her fellow school mates call her orobo.

Concepts used to denote small sized persons were also accrued. The following data from IDI referenced these concepts:
Opelenge" is the Yoruba name for slim persons
Slim people like me are usually referred to as "opelenge". Sometimes
opelenge may be used by a wife to address a young member of her
husband's family to avoid calling him or her by first name.

Some group discussants buttressed earlier data and identified another concept in the following data:
Others are "lepa", "lepacious baby ". They are used to describe slim
Participants were probed: Is this derogatory?
It will also depend on the context and intonation.
Slim persons are referred to as "opelenge".

Some key informants corroborated these concepts in the data below:
The adage/name for slim people includes "opelenge", which simply means
slim. They may also use it for a wife that is slim if members of her
husband's family do not want to call her by name. If it is a slim male,
they call them "atere mase"--one who is thin and does not break.
They may be called "oparun", and they are usually stronger than fat

"Opelenge" is a recurring concept as it was similarly identified by several key informants. For instance a key informant opined as follows:
There is "opelenge awelewa" for a slender person.

These names, opelenge or opelenge awelewa, atere mase, oparun are also largely descriptive. The more recent concept is "lepa" or "lepacious baby", and it does hold meaning. Data shows that the meaning they imply will depend on the context. On the whole, it appears that lepa is more appreciable name these days, when compared with orobo.

Ifa Corpuses and Body Sizes

No Ifa corpus favored one body size over another. Ifa did not specify or even suggest that one size is better than the other. According to a notable Ifa priest:
What Ifa does is to describe a person. It describes the fat or the
slim. Ifa did not tell us that being fat or slim is good or bad.
Ifa describes like this:
Tere bi abere              slim like a needle
Gbalaja bi ikokun          large like ikokun
Yindinyindin bi rebe       really shiny like rebe

Another Ifa priest expressed a similar opinion, claiming that Ifa merely describes people but does not judge their sizes. Ifa corpus described people like this:
O ri teeree bi opa ibon.   As slim as gun
O sanra bi odo iyan        As fat as mortar
O laya bi oke              As chesty as mountain

A connected issue that virtually all the Ifa priests referred was about height and dancing skills. These are reported below:
In one Ifa corpus (Odu Ifa)--ogbelotun, ogundaloosi, also called ogbe
ogunda or ogbe iyonu:
Eni kukuru ni jo ye                  dancing is fit for the short person
Eyan togun w'unabere                 the tall bends down
B'eyanbaga la gaju, won ki mo jojo   if one is too tall, they do not
                                     know how to dance

All the Ifa priests consulted referenced the corpus in the data above and clearly stated that Ifa is non-judgmental about any body size. Examples of their assertions are follows:
It is also in another Ifa corpus (Odu Ifa), ogbelotun and ogundaloosi,
we call it ogbegunda/ogbeyonu, where Ifa also said that dancing fits a
short person. The tall person will bend, if one is too tall, they
usually do not know how to dance. That is why they say dance fits the
short person unlike the tall person that will have to bend before being
able to dance which will not make the person's dancing skills to be
Ifa also said that dancing is more befitting for the short person. if
one is tall, he or she has to stoop in order to dance
In one Ifa corpus, there is this saying that dancing fits the short but
not the tall (eni kukuru ni jo ye, eyan togun w'un a si te)

An Ifa priest simply opined as follows:
It is the way we are created that we look, nobody recreates himself (bi
aba se dani laari, enikan e da ra eni)

Yoruba Proverbs, Oriki, Sayings and Body Sizes

Many Yoruba proverbs and sayings were found to be neutral towards body sizes. Oriki are indeed neutral, as they are meant to eulogize the person that is praised. Some group discussants referenced the following proverb:
Omo eni o le se di bebere, ka ko ileke si idi omo elomi
The buttocks of one's child cannot be so fat that we place beads on the
waist of another person's child

This saying ordinarily refers to a large body part, the buttocks, but it is very neutral when considered idiomatically. It only shows that one's child should always be preferred, irrespective of the child's misdoing. Another Yoruba saying referenced by an interviewee that partially sheds light on varying body sizes is as follows:
b'omo o jo sokoto, y'o jo kijipa
if the child does not resemble the trouser, he will resemble the wrapper

This saying simply states that if a child does not resemble his or her father then he/she will resemble his or her mother. Trousers and wrappers are used to refer to father and mother respectively. This is used to explain people's body sizes and it is in line with genealogical explanation of body size.

Yoruba Proverbs, Oriki, Sayings and Small Body Size

Many Yoruba proverbs and sayings are neutral towards small body size. Sometimes they are merely descriptive. Some interviewees stated as follows:
People can say that a slim person is as lean as panla fish (o gbe bi
eja panla).
I have seen slim people being referred to as being slim like a needle
(tere bi abere).

These sayings merely describe the slim person with other usually slim materials--needle and a kind of fish. This is the style of Ifa corpuses, which also merely describes physical features. Another interviewee stated that:
Yoruba people may say that a small sized person is stunted and did not
fully develop (o ran, ko yo nle).

Perhaps, the most popular body size related saying in Yoruba is what follows. When participants were asked to articulate Yoruba sayings relating to body sizes, this was always the usual response. An interviewee stated as follows:
They will say the small person fell on the porcelain dish and the dish
did not break but fell on the wooden mortar and the mortar was shredded
into pieces (opelenge subu lawo awo o fo, o subu lodo odo faya). This
saying is used to honor the slender person.

Group discussants similarly buttressed this saying in the following sample of data:
There is a popular Yoruba saying that the slim person falls on the
breakable plate and the plate did not break, but the person falls on
the mortar and the mortar broke (opelenge subu lawo awo o fo, o subu
lodo odo faya).

Several key informants also referenced the saying in question. One of them asserted as follows:
When Yoruba people see slim persons, they have ways of praising or
honoring them. Irrespective of size, Yoruba have a way of honoring
people. To slim persons Yoruba will say the slim persons falls on the
breakable plate and the plate did not break, but falls on the mortar
and the mortar broke (opelenge subu lawo awo o fo, o subu lodo odo faya)

Apart from this recurring thought, there are other proverbs which out rightly approves of small body size. An interviewee stated that:
Yoruba people can also say that the dried fish does not breed maggot
(eja gbigbe kii se din)

A group discussion also yielded the following consensus:
When they see slim persons they say that dried meat does not grow
maggot (eran gbigbe e ta din)

A key informant similarly asserted as follows:
Yoruba also use to say that dried meat does not grow maggot (eran
gbigbe e ta din)

The presupposition of this thought is simply that the slim enjoys better health when compared with the fat body. The usefulness of this thought was exemplified when a key informant related his lived experience about two oppositely sized women who verbally attacked each other with their sizes. The small sized woman was reported to have said that she was "dried meat that does not grow maggot". Yet, another proverb proclaimed that the slim person's nutrition is not the basis for his or her slimness. The proverb was referenced by a key informant as follows:
The fact that cat is not well fed is not why it is not as big as dog (a
i jeun kanu olongbo ko ni o jo ta'ja)

Yoruba Proverbs, Oriki, Sayings and Large Body Size

Many accrued Yoruba proverbs and sayings applauded large body size. A key informant stated as follows:
In Yoruba proverbs (owe) they say that fatness is not a disease

This proverb is self explanatory. It asserts that fatness is not a disease. This is a cause to take fatness for granted. Several interviewees referenced the following proverb:
The body does not get too heavy for the owner of the body to move it
(ara ki tobi ki a lara ma'legbe)

Some group discussants also recounted this proverb:
The Yoruba have a saying that body does not get big to a point that its
owner will not be able to carry it (ara ki tobi ki a lara ma'legbe)

This proverb favors fatness. Other accrued large body size applauding sayings include the following:
A musician once sang that money should be given to the person that has
big stomach.

Some group discussants also recounted this saying:
They also use to say that money should be entrusted to the big bellied
and not the flat belied person (eni to ba yokun ni ke gbowo fun, e mase
gbowo f'eni to se nu pelebe)

Contributions from key informants similarly applauded large body size:
The Yoruba have an adage that money should be given to the fellow with
a protruding tummy and not the person with a flat tummy. This is
because they believe that someone with a protruding tummy is well fed,
has more to give out and is wealthy.
When Yoruba people see fat persons, they usually say some things like
the elderly whose belly is not fat is stingy (agba ti o yokun, ahun lo

These sayings simply manifest the traditional wealth-related attitude towards large body size. Other large-body applauding sayings are referenced in the following data:
For the big, they can remark that he or she is plump like the python
(koropoto bi oka), the one who is being fed by the community (eni ti
gbogbo ilu nbo)
They may also say "koropoto bi oka" (plump like the python), to show
honor to the fat person

This saying, an oriki, simply compares the size of the fat with that of a python. Another large body applauding saying was mentioned by an interviewee:
When a person has large body size they can refer to that person as
someone who is full-belied like a person who has a mother (a yo bi o ni
ya), because the person has a big body.

This saying simply infers that a fat person has a benefactor, in this case a mother: a manifestation of the belief that feeding and other comforting conditions predisposes to fatness. Another large body applauding saying is referenced by a key informant in the data below:
Obinrin to sanra lo y 'oko re lojo irin ajo--the fat woman befits her
husband when he is going on a journey. You know the big size gives some
regard to the man.


Concepts used to refer to largely sized persons are sanra, alomilara, abo mi lara bi aboyun and ayiluko, which are largely descriptive. Rumu rumu, like sanra,, are adjectives meant to qualify fatness. Sanra is the most usual name attached to a fat person. Sanra basically consists of two words: san + ara = sanra. San means to be better-off or to payoff. According to Microsoft Encarta dictionary (2009), better-off means "fairly wealthy", "favorably placed" or "with plenty". Ara means the body. Hence, lexically, to sanra means to have a fairly wealthy, favorable placed or plentiful body. Sanra also goes beyond the wealth thing. Apart from favorable placement and plentifulness, sanra also connote "that which has paid the body". San also means pay off, "settlement" or "full payment". Hence, the person that sanra has manifested food consumption on its body, o san ara--he or she has paid the body. The Yoruba also remark to slim persons, especially those who eat a lot as "o je je, ko bun ara je", literarily meaning "he/she eats and eats but does not give the body". This shows that to sanra as a word can connote some wealth, but it goes beyond wealth to also connote plentifulness, favorable placement and replenishment of the body. The descriptive nature of sanra is immanent but traditional, wealth related attitude to fatness reflects in sanra.

Rumu rumu is a related concept that is used to describe the fat. It is simply an adjective meant to drive home the point that a person is plumb. The closest English word to it is chubby. Other concepts employed to describe fat persons are alomilara (one who has water in his or her body), abo mi lara bi aboyun (one who has water in his or her body like a pregnant woman); ayo bi oniya (one who is full like a person who has a mother) and ayiluko (one who slumps unto her husband).

All these are descriptive or attributive. A yo bi o ni ya is somewhat fascinating because it reflects that a fat person has a mother who naturally feeds him or her well, a verity corroborating the earlier story of sanra as someone whose food consumption reflects on his or her body.

The more recent concept used to denote large body size is orobo which holds contextual meaning that could be admiring or derogatory. Data showed that the meaning it implies will depend on the context, sometimes reflecting praise or insult. This is correct, given that "the Yoruba pattern is purely tonal" (Pulleyblank, 2004: 422). "Yoruba is a tonal language, so that the same word may have different meanings depending on how it is pronounced" (Lawal, 2001: 498). However, it appears that these days orobo is more of a derogatory language than praise.

Concepts used to denote small body sizes are opelenge or opelenge awelewa, atere mase, oparun. These are also largely descriptive. However, "lenge" , from opelenge may reflect frailty, as reflected in saying "o ri lenge lenge bi eyi ti o le jeko kan tan" (he/she looks "lenge lenge" like one who cannot finish one wrap of solid pap). Notwithstanding, opelenge as a word is mostly used as a descriptive name for a slim person. The name may also be used by in-laws to refer to a new slim wife in a family to avoid calling her by her first name, since this may be offensive. Another recent concept is "lepa" or "lepacious baby" which also hold contextual meaning as "orobo" stated earlier. The recency of this word shows in the later half of the word--cious, the suffix usually used in English words to make a word an adjective. Data showed that the meaning they imply will depend on the context. On the whole, it appears that lepa is a more appreciable name these days when compared with orobo.

The quest for attitudinal data relating to body sizes in Ifa corpuses yielded a straightforward answer: the non-existence of strongly related data. It is impossible to find any Ifa corpus placing one body size over another. Ifa does not specify or suggest that one size is better than the other. What Ifa does is merely to describe people but does not judge them. Ifa corpus may assert like this: as slim as a gun, as fat as a mortar, as chesty as a mountain (Key informant interview, male, Babalawo, large body size). A slightly connected issue for which almost all the interviewed Babalawos referred was about height and dancing skills. According to them, Ifa asserted that: dancing is fit for the short person, the tall bends down, if one is too tall, they do not know how to dance. The non-existence of relevant body size related data in Ifa corpuses tacitly indicate lack of importance in the conception of body sizes among Yoruba people. This is given that Ifa literary corpus occupies a central position in the records of Yoruba frame of reference (Abimbola, 1975; Harris, 1992). As recounted in the introductory part of this article, Ifa is revered, venerated and held with great regard and awe. It captures the Yoruba essences. Without data specifying attitudes to body size in Ifa literary corpus, it is certain that body size lacks importance among the Yoruba.

Many Yoruba proverbs and sayings are neutral towards body sizes. Oriki are indeed neutral, as they are meant to eulogize the person that is praised. Oriki assembles every possible dimension of an individual including successes and even failures. A proverb reads as follows: omo eni o le se di bebere, ka ko leke si idi omo elomi (the buttocks of one's child cannot be so fat that we place beads on the waist of another person's child). This ordinarily refers to fat buttocks, but idiomatically, it shows that one's child should always be preferred, irrespective of the child's misdoing. Se di bebere (literarily meaning largeness of buttocks) here is used to describe a situation where a child does a socially unacceptable thing, e.g., disrespecting an elder. In the event that such a child requires the attention or help of his or her parent, the parents should still oblige. It must be noted however, that the literal meaning of se di bebere ordinarily shows that Yoruba may not appreciate largeness of body. Se di bebere is used here as a metaphor to describe socially unacceptable situations. Nevertheless, this saying is largely neutral to large body size. Another Yoruba saying that reflects neutrality about varying body sizes is: b'omo o jo sokoto, y'o jo kijipa (if the child does not resemble the trouser, he will resemble the wrapper). This saying simply states that if a child does not resemble his or her father then he/she will resemble his or her mother. Trousers and wrappers are used to refer to father and mother respectively. This genealogically explains people's body sizes.

Some Yoruba proverbs, oriki, sayings relates to body sizes more specifically. Considering the small body size, many of them are still neutral. Some data showed that a slim person may be said to be "lean as panla fish" or "slim like a needle". These sayings merely describe the slim person with other usually slim materials--needle and a kind of lean fish (panla). This saying also reflects the style of Ifa corpuses, which also merely describe physical features.

Perhaps, the most popular body size related saying in Yoruba is opelenge subu lawo awo o fo, o subu lodo odo fa ya (the slim person fell on the breakable plate and it did not break, but fell on the mortar and the mortar broke). During data collection this saying/oriki dominated participant's responses whenever they were asked to articulate Yoruba thought relating to body sizes. The literal meaning of this popular saying is quite clear, but counter-intuitive. A person whose fall did not break a breakable plate cannot be expected to break a mortar simply by falling on it. This thought is more like a jest, or something said to make the slim person feel powerful. This is quite significant, considering its large contribution to the notion that body sizes are neutrally represented in Yoruba oral resources.

Apart from this recurring thought, there are many other proverbs which out rightly approves of small body size. For instance, eran gbigbe kii se din (dried meat does not grow maggot); eja gbigbe e ta din (dried fish does not breed maggot). The thesis of this thought is simply that the slim enjoys better health, at least when compared with the fat. This singular thought is a reason to show that Yoruba understands the health implication of large body size. Yet, another proverb or saying excused the slim from poor nutrition as the basis for his or her slimness: a i jeun kanu olongbo ko ni o jo ta'ja (that the cat is not well fed is not why it is not as big as dog).

Meanwhile, Yoruba proverbs and sayings have also been found to approve large body size. A saying reads that ara sisan ki s'arun (fatness is not illness). This proverb is a cause to take fatness for granted. Another proverb reads that ara ki tobi ki alara ma'le gbe (body does not get big to a point that its owner will not be able to carry it). This proverb is also like a sign post telling people to grow as big as they could, since it holds that they will always be able to carry their body. It is a saying asserting that there will always be some way or some means to solve a problem. Other large body size applauding sayings include the following: eni to ba yo kun ni ke gbo wo fun (money should be given to the fellow with a protruding tummy). This saying, with the traditional assumption that large body size is associated with wealth, simply shows that money is safer with the largely sized. Koropoto bi oka (plump like the python) is another saying showing honor to the fat person. A python is a very large snake. This saying, an oriki, simply compares the size of the largely sized or the fat with that of a python. However, it is usually used in such a way that makes the fat person to feel important. Another saying reads that obinrin to sanra lo y' oko re lojo irin ajo (the fat woman befits her husband when he is going on a journey).This saying imply that such largely sized or fat women will reflect the care provided by the husband, so, it will be more gratifying to travel along with such a wife.

On the whole, a review of Yoruba sayings, proverbs and oriki related to body sizes showed a glorification of large body size, but this does not necessarily result to humiliation of small body size. These oral resources largely eulogize large as well as small body sizes. Therefore, the body of traditional oral resources is out rightly non-aligning towards the large or the slim body size.


Yoruba concepts reflect the attitude of positivity, neutrality and negativity towards large body size. Ifa's silence on body size is a reflection of its neutrality. Yoruba proverbs, oriki, sayings can be neutral or glorify large body size, while not humiliating small body size. Hence, Yoruba oral traditional resources are mainly dispassionate towards body sizes.


Abimbola, Wande. "Iwapele: the concept of Good character in Ifa literary corpus." Yoruba Oral Tradition. Abimbola Wande. Ed. Ife: Department of African languages and literatures, 1975. 387-420.

__. Awon oju odu mereerindinlogun. Ibadan: UP PLC, 2004.

__. Ijinle ohun enu Ifa (apa kin-in-ni). Ibadan: UP PLC, 2006.

Adogame, Afe. "Aiye loja, orun ni le: the appropriation of ritual space-time in the cosmology of the Celestial church of Christ." Journal of Religion in Africa 30.1(2000): 3-29.

Awolalu, Omosade J. "Yoruba sacrificial practice." Journal of Religion in Africa 5.2 (1973): 81-93.

Barber, Karen. "How man makes God in west Africa: Yoruba attitudes towards the Orisa." Journal of the International African Institute 51.3 (1981): 724-745.

__. "Yoruba "oriki" and deconstructive criticism." Research in African literatures 15.4 (1984): 497-518.

Beier, Ulli H. "Yoruba vocal music." African Music 1.3 (1956): 23-28.

Connell, R.W. "Why is classical theory classical?" American Journal of Sociology 102.6 (1997): 1511-57.

Delano, Isaac O. Owe l'esin oro: Yoruba proverbs, their meaning and usage. Ibadan: University Press Limited, 1979.

Egger, Garry and Swinburn, Boyd. "An "ecological" approach to the obesity pandemic" BMJ, 315 (1997): 477-80.

Fadipe, Nathaniel Akinremi. The Sociology of the Yoruba. Ibadan: Ibadan University press, 1970.

Gareau, Fredrick H. "Another Type of Third World Dependency: The Social Sciences." International Sociology 3.2 (1988): 171-178.

Harris, Michael D. "Africentrism and Curriculum: Concepts, Issues, and Prospects." The Journal of Negro Education 61.3 (1992): 301-316.

Holdsworth, M., Gartner, A., Landais, E., Maire, B. and Delpeuch, F. "Perceptions of healthy and desirable body size in urban Senegalese women." International Journal of Obesity 28(2004): 1561-1568.

Irele, Abiola, F. The African Imagination: Literature in Africa & the Black Diaspora. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lawal, Babatude. "Aworan: Representing the Self and its Metaphysical Other in Yoruba Art." The Art Bulletin 83.3 (2001): 498-526.

Longe, Olu. Ifa divination and computer science. An inaugural lecture. Ibadan: University of Ibadan, 1983.

Loubser, Jan.J. "The Need for the Indigenization of the Social Sciences." International Sociology 3.2 (1988): 179-187.

Marzagora, Sara. "Literatures in African languages." Journal of African Cultural Studies 27.1 (2015): 1-6

McIntosh, Marjorie Keniston. Yoruba women, work, and social change. USA: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Microsoft Encarta Dictionary. USA: Microsoft Corporation, 2009.

Morton-Williams, Peter. "Yoruba Responses to the Fear of Death." Journal of the International African Institute 30.1 (1960): 34-40.

Ojoade, J.O. "African Sexual Proverbs: Some Yoruba Examples." Folklore 94.2 (1983): 201-213.

Olademo, Oyeronke. Gender in Yoruba oral tradition. Lagos, Nigeria: Concept Publications Limited, for: Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization, 2009.

Omobowale, Ayokunle Olumuyiwa. "Clientelism and Social Structure: An Analysis of Patronage in Yoruba Social Thought." Afrika Spectrum 43.2 (2008): 203-224.

Park, Peter. "Toward an Emancipatory Sociology: Abandoning Universalism for True Indigenization." International Sociology 3.2 (1988): 161-170.

Pulleyblank, Douglas. "A note on tonal markedness in Yoruba." Phonology 21.3 (2004): 409-425.

Sanda, Muyiwa A. "In Defense of Indigenization in Sociological Theories." International Sociology 3.2 (1988): 189-199.

Schwab, William. B. "Kinship and Lineage among the Yoruba." Journal of the International African Institute 25.4 (1955): 352-374.

Vansina, Jan. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press.

Villareal, Dennis T., Apovian, Caroline M., Kushner, Robert F. and Klein, Samuel. "Obesity in Older Adults: Technical Review and Position Statement of the American Society for Nutrition and NAASO, The Obesity Society." Obesity Research, 13.11 (2012): 18491863.

Wadden, Thomas A., Brownell, Kelly D., and Foster, Gary D. "Obesity: Responding to the Global Epidemic." Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70.3 (2002): 510-525.

by Fausat Motunrayo Ibrahim, Ph.D. Department of Sociology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

& Ayodele Samuel Jegede, Ph.D. Department of Sociology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

(1) Park (1988), Gareau (1988), Loubser (1988) and Sanda (1988) have unanimously expounded the need to expunge the domination of social sciences through universalism in the positivistic tradition. Park (1988: 163), while concentrating on emancipating sociology in particular, argued that the pursuance of universalism in sociology prevents the gathering of socially relevant knowledge, as people are denied "the sense of tradition, culture and community, and reduced to homogenized atoms accorded only abstract qualities recognized in the objective world of science". Park further asserted that this trend is probably harmless in the physical sciences whose subject matter is inanimate. Gareau (1988: 171-173) traced the history of social science and opined that it ' 'bears a striking resemblance to the evolution of the international economic order". He thereafter advocated "strategies of domestication"--"an attempt to make what is foreign more relevant to local conditions and needs''. Loubser (1988: 179-181) attempted a conceptual framework to aid organizations or groups who take it upon themselves to effect the enthronement of indigenization. Sanda (1988: 197) advanced the point that there is nothing immanently ethnocentric about focusing conceptual and empirical activities on one's society as effort directed at indigenization might even be viewed as ethnocentric itself. As long as "claims of universal applicability'' are not made prior to testing in different social contexts. He further opined that "such an initial orientation toward particularism and indigenization in sociological theory is bound to be productive in both the short and long run. To do otherwise is to continue to revel under the yoke of discredited received theories, and to promote the interests--ideological, imperialistic or otherwise--of theoretical capitalists, whose logic and criteria of universalism in theory building are inseparable from their logical domination" (ibid).
COPYRIGHT 2017 Journal of Pan African Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ibrahim, Fausat Motunrayo; Jegede, Ayodele Samuel
Publication:Journal of Pan African Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Sep 1, 2017
Previous Article:Proverbs in Lubukusu and Ekegusii in Kenya: Empowering or Disempowering for Women and Girls?
Next Article:Education in an Unfamiliar Language: Impact of Teachers' Limited Language Proficiency on Pedagogy, a Situational Analysis of Upper Primary Schools in...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |