Beyond Diversity: Women, Scarification, and Yoruba Identity

By Ojo, Olatunji | History In Africa, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Beyond Diversity: Women, Scarification, and Yoruba Identity

Ojo, Olatunji, History In Africa


On 18 March 1898 Okolu, an Ijesa man, accused Otunba of Italemo ward, Ondo of seizing and enslaving his sister Osun and his niece. Both mother and daughter, enslaved by the Ikale in 1894, had fled from their master in 1895, but as they headed toward Ilesa, the accused seized them. Osun claimed the accused forced her to become his wife, "hoe a farm," and marked her daughter's face with one deep, bold line on each cheek. Otunba denied the slavery charge, claiming he only "rescued [Osun] from Soba who was taking her away [and] took her for wife." Itoyimaki, a defense witness, supported the claim that Osun was not Otunba's slave. In his decision, Albert Erharhdt, the presiding British Commissioner, freed the captives and ordered the accused to pay a fine of two pounds.1 In addition to integrating Osun through marriage, the mark conferred on her daughter a standard feature of Ondo identity. Although this case came up late in the nineteenth century, it represents a trend in precolonial Yorubaland whereby marriages and esthetics served the purpose of ethnic incorporation.

Studies on the roots of African ethnic identity consciousness have concentrated mostly on the activities of outsiders, usually Euro-American Christian missions, repatriated ex-slaves, and Muslims, whose ideas of nations as geocultural entities were applied to various African groups during the era of the slave trade and, more intensely, under colonialism.2 For instance, prior to the late nineteenth century, the people now called Yoruba were divided into multiple opposing ethnicities. Ethnic wars displaced millions of people, including about a million Yoruba-speakers deported as slaves to the Americas, Sierra Leone, and the central Sudan, mostly between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the Yoruba-speaking exiles encountered other groups in the diaspora, they found similarities in their cultures and through a process of ethnogenesis created the Nago and Lucumi (Americas) and Aku, later Yoruba (Sierra Leone) nations, into which later Yoruba and several non-Yoruba-speaking slaves were incorporated. After the cessation of the Atlantic slave trade, repatriated ex-slaves, Christian missionaries, and British colonialists introduced and marketed these diasporic ethnic designations to people left in the homeland.3

This is an attractive thesis, but one that requires modification. Without discountenancing those external factors that underpinned Yoruba identity consciousness, the paper argues that not enough attention has been paid to domestic factors that made this diasporic initiative acceptable to people in the homeland. With particular reference to the role of Christianity, very few Yoruba truly converted, and many of those who attended churches in Sierra Leone and the Americas relapsed into Orisa worship or Islam or a mixture of the three soon after their return. For practical purposes, the attitude of the Yoruba to Christianity was rooted in their understanding of Orisa worship to the degree that Christianity became Yoruba, as much as the Yoruba were Christianized.4

At levels comparable to the Atlantic world, people who remained in the Yoruba homeland also experienced enslavement, and population displacement and mixing, which resulted in the construction of new identities. Obviously, how people became "Yoruba" in the diaspora mirrored the absorption of Owu into Egba, Ijebu, or Oyo after 1820; the Yorubanization of Lagos after 1800; or the birth of Ekiti in the 1850s.5 This paper focuses on how the activities of homeland Yoruba shaped the process of ethnic identification. In particular, it concentrates on the institution of marriage, foreign wives, and cicatrization during the turbulent ethnic wars of the nineteenth century. It shows that warfare and the attendant population mix induced inter-ethnic marriages and the production of children with mixed ancestries. Population contact increased cultural adaptations such as the spread of certain religious rituals and scarification brands to places where they previously did not exist. …

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