Vol VII, Issue 3 (Summer 2000): Nigerian Culture and Society



Gloria Emeagwali
Chief Editor

Walton Brown-Foster
Copy Editor

Haines Brown


Olayemi Akinwumi

Zenebworke Bissrat

Paulus Gerdes

Mosebjane Malatsi
(South Africa)

Alfred Zack-Williams
(Sierra Leone)


Tennyson Darko
Asst. Dir. ITS, CCSU

Peter K. LeMaire
Professor, CCSU

Bernice A. LeMaire
Website Designer

For more information concerning AfricaUpdate
Prof. Gloria Emeagwali
CCSU History Dept.
1615 Stanley Street
New Britian, CT 06050
Tel: 860-832-2815



Table of Contents


Editorial: Nigerian Culture and Society

By  Dr.Gloria Emeagwali - Chief Editor

Dr. Olayemi Akinwumi provides us with  useful insights into  the activities of  a popularly known group of Nigerian entrepreneurs, the alajapa and alarobo of  Western Nigeria. These are wholesale and retail  sellers  who deal largely with agricultural commodities in various parts of  Yorubaland.  Akinwumi  briefly  identifies some of the  pre-colonial references to female entrepreneurs. He sees a distinction between the scale of their development in this era and their subsequent decline in the colonial and  early post-colonial periods. The alajapa and alarobo female entrepreneurs  have  increased  significantly over the last two decades, however. Akinwumi tells us why in his illuminating discussion. He also provides us with a list of  commodities  that feature in their commercial activity and the West African regions from which they are obtained. Some of these areas are within the Nigerian region but we should note the commercial contact with the Benin Republic which contains a large  population of Yoruba-  speaking  Africans.

On a slightly different aspect of Nigerian culture and society, Professor Sanda  of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria reflects on humor,  communication and the creative use of proverbs. We are reminded of  the cultural  norms, philosophies, hopes and aspirations embedded in  African proverbs and equally significant, an important mode of transmission  of  cherished  educational values and  beliefs.

With the permission of Hype Information Service we include in this issue an update on the production of the second  film in the documentary series on African scholars by Nile Delta Films. 25 years ago portugal was forced to rlinquish its African colonies. The liberation struggle took numerous lives and robbed Africa of some of its most promising leaders including Amilcar Cabral. These liberation wars were costly in terms of lives and resources. They destabilized agricultural production as well as families. The liberation forces aimed to regain economic and political independence. Two films, Mortu Nega and Flame commemorate this important episode in Africa's development. In this issue we include a brief comment comparing them.

Women Entrepreneurs in Nigeria:

Notes on the Yoruba "Alajapa" and "Alarobo"

By Dr.Olayemi Akinwumi, Department of History, University of Ilorin, Nigeria and Visiting Scholar, Institut fur Ethnologie, Freie Universitat, Berlin, Germany

"Alajapa" and "Alarobo" are two different traditional and popular terms among the Yoruba people of South Western Nigeria to describe two different groups of entrepreneurs in the society. The "alajapa" have been described by Toyin Falola as the itinerant traders, while the "alarobo" could be described as "petty traders." The difference between the two groups is that the "alajapa" deal with bulk sale, while the "alarobo" are retail sellers. In Yorubaland, however, the two groups deal largely with agricultural commodities and are dominated by women.

Background Information

There is a great deal of information on the economic activities of Yoruba women in the pre-colonial era. Apart from oral information, there are also various reports by the nineteenth century European travelers across Yorubaland. In their various accounts, they described the economic activities of Yoruba women. Clarke and the Lander brothers, who followed some of the caravans during their journey in Yorubaland reported the predominance of women entrepreneurs. Indeed, they described these women entrepreneurs as shrewd business women.

The dominance of Yoruba women entrepreneurs in the pre-colonial era was not as a result of the nineteenth century wars as claimed by Hodder. Indeed, it has been proved by many that the dominance of women in commercial activities pre-dated the war period.

Yoruba women were engaged in commercial activities in the pre-colonial era for many reasons. Some of the reasons included supplementing the income of their families. Their involvement brought enormous wealth to some of them. We must stress the fact that most of the popular Yoruba women in this period became popular because of the wealth derived from their commercial activities. Their wealth, in turn, gave them political positions in their respective communities. Some of the women included Efunsetan Aniwura of Ibadan and Madam Tinubu of Lagos and later Abeokuta.

In the colonial period, in spite of the negative impact of colonial rule on the status of Nigerian women, women continued to dominate small scale businesses. One should also mention the fact that the cash crops introduced by the colonial government offered Yoruba women entrepreneurs more opportunities to diversify their economic activities. However, in comparison to their male counterparts the period did not fetch them much wealth.

In the post-colonial period, there was a decrease in the percentage of women in the commercial sector, especially in the informal sector. This was as a result of government policy and the oil boom. However, from the eighties, there was a reversal following the global oil glut and the downward trend in developing economies, including Nigeria. The various economic policies introduced by the military governments of Buhari/Idiagbon and Babangida led to the retrenchment of many women, including their husbands, from the civil service. The need for survival led many women to take to commercial activities to support themselves or their families. This period witnessed the increase in the number of the "alajapa" and the "alarobo."

Mode of Operation

As mentioned above, the "alajapa" deal essentially with commodity sales. There is no special qualification to become an "alajapa." What it requires is a little capital, the knowledge of the goods, places to get the goods and the good will of friends and family members already in the business. Since her activities could be termed as informal, that is, she is not by law registered as a company or business organization, she operates from her house or at her market stall. In either case, there are always the "alarobo," retail sellers, who will buy in bulk from the "alarobo," and sell in retail to make her profit. Unlike the "alajapa," the "alarobo" usually don't have enough capital to buy in bulk or the time to travel long distances to buy goods. She is either too old or a nursing mother. Like the pre-colonial caravan traders, the "alajapa," in most cases, operate together. There are occasions when more than five women will travel together to buy foodstuff in bulk, from any part of the country where it is cheap. The table below shows popular goods and places where they are bought:






Abuja/Zaki Biam (Benue State)


Ijebu-Ode (Ogun State)

Rice (imported)

Lagos and Cotonou (Benin Republic)

Rice (local)

Nupeland (i.e. Gbugbu and Mokwa -
Niger State)

Yam Flour

Kaima (Borguland)
Kishi (Oyo State)

Kola nuts

Ilesha, Ile-Ife and Ondo State

Palm Oil

Ile-Ife, Ondo and Okiti Pupu

The journey to these places is undertaken very early in the morning. Most of the entrepreneurs have no vehicle of their own, and as a result, they have personal arrangement with transporters, who frequent those places.

Seventh World Congress of Orisa Tradition and Culture

The 7th World Congress of Orisa Tradition and Culture takes place at Ile-Ife, Nigeria, West Africa, August 5 to 12, 2001.

The theme of the conference is "Time is Ripe: The Orisa Tradition in the 21st century." It will celebrate the Orisa traditions, culture and spiritual experience worldwide.

Participants will make their own hotel reservations.

Contact: The 7th Orisa World Congress

24B, Obalufon Street

P.O. Box 1658, Ile-Ife,

Osun State, Nigeria

e-mail: orisavii@oauife.edu.ng

Humor and Communication among the Yoruba

By Professor A. O. Sanda, Public Administration,
Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria

The Yoruba people of West Africa are largely concentrated in the South Western part of Nigeria, particularly in Oyo, Ondo, Kogi, Kwara, Osun, Ogun and Lagos States. Although the Yoruba language provides a mutually intelligible communication community for all the speakers, there are distinct dialectical differences between the Oyo, Ijebu, Ekiti, and Ondo Yoruba.

Nevertheless, the main stream (Oyo) Yoruba language provides the main vehicle of oral and written communication. Such oral communication among the Yoruba often entails the use of proverbs ("owe"), songs ("orin"), public announcement ("ikede"), selected wise sayings ("asayan oro") during ordinary everyday communication in an attempt to enrich the meaning or underscore the message which is intended during such conversations. In this short piece our concern is with the use of humor to impart ideas, to convey warnings, to give advice or to carry a serious message across to people while they laugh often in excitement.

The use of humor in transferring ideas or inculcating values to others is encouraged by the Yoruba in order to prevent boredom during long meetings or short but serious discussions. The humor that is embedded in the content of the message ensures that the message will not be easily forgotten. Indeed it is often the laughter and excitement that accompany the humorous but witty song or saying that make an indelible impression which underscores the message that is being communicated.

In this contribution, while we recognize the numerous forms often taken by humorous messages or combination of humor and communication among the Yoruba (e.g. through "ifa," "inagije," "rara," "awada," "efe," "eebu" "apara" etc) we have chosen to examine the use of humor in combination with proverbs in interpersonal communication among the Yoruba.

Also while it is appreciated that there are also dysfunctional consequences of some of these vehicles of communication, we shall focus much more on the functional and positive purposes of the Yoruba usage of proverbs in combination with humor, to teach or praise, to enlighten and to amuse.

II. Yoruba Proverbs with Humor

Perhaps we may begin by considering the conception of laughter itself when it is frequently associated with an individual. According to the Yoruba:

"Eniti erin re ba ti po ju ki ije ki a mo igba ti o ba nbinu"

This is to say directly that an individual who often carries a smiling face may make it difficult for observers to know when he is angry.

When the same witty saying is turned into a humorous proverb it becomes:

"Eyin fife sile ki i je ki a mo ibinu sigidi."

Translated, this now becomes the continuous display or constant exposure of the teeth of the effigy makes it difficult for people to know when it is angry. Although everyone knows that effigies do not have moving lips; neither do they have functional teeth. Nevertheless, the permanently smiling teeth conveys the impression that effigies are never angry and once the effigies are addressed in the proverb as if they were human beings the message gets across to the listener at the same time that the method/means commands laughter.

Another simple way of rendering a similar saying is:

"Erin ko je ki oko o na."

This is to say that constant smiling makes it impossible for the husband to become sufficiently disenchanted to intimidate the smiling wife.

A slightly different version of the same proverb states:

"Ti eleyin gan-n-gan yio fi kuerin ni won yio se bi o nrin."

Translated, this means that it is difficult to know when a perpetually smiling person is actually dying.

The lasting message in the preceding however is that smiling or laughter is a healthy habit to cultivate. But at the same time one must be wary of the individual who smiles at all times since it is usually difficult if not impossible to know when the same individual is angry.

Another Yoruba saying which is worthy of examination in this respect is one on the vital significance of installing leaders of the right qualities or attributes - age, competence, popularity etc - if the people's suffering is to be mitigated. According to the Yoruba:

"Arugbo ile ku, won fi olokunrun jaye; ariwo won tun ku ekan ni ile yen"

Translated, the preceding states that an aged head of the family had just

died and the household decided to install an invalid as a new family head. Certainly, the sorrowful cry of regret will quickly recur in that family, since the new family head may not live long.

If the demise of an incompetent leader is quickly followed by the succession of another decrepit leader, the state or society merely returns to the status quo ante. This proverb suggests that succession is an event that must be carefully executed through the installation of competent successors that could rectify the ills of predecessors when this is not done, the consequence can not but be adverse or dysfunctional.

A third proverb which conveys major messages inherent in the Yoruba saying:

"Ebi npa babe, bake sun sookun; e wa ni ki a tan ina fun babe; ina ni babe o je ni?"

Translated, the preceding states that an old man is hungry and he was sleeping in the dark partly as a result of hunger; someone then suggested that the old man should be provided with light; will the hungry old man eat light? In other words, we can not prescribe the medicine which was meant for headache to cure stomach ulcer. The difference or contrast between light and food in the proverb underscores the meaning and intended message while retaining the humor in the way the message is conveyed.

Another Yoruba proverb describes the mode of dressing of the Muslim/Islamic preacher, while a similar one describes the style of preaching and praying of the Christian pastor. Both try to convey the message of the frequent contrast between the Yoruba image of God and the image of the modern religious leaders. According to the Yoruba:

"Alufaa lo susuka, olorun kii reru."

This means that it is the Muslim preacher (Alufaa) who (with his heavy turban) places supporting cloth on his head as if he Is preparing to carry a load. The Lord does not carry luggage. Again consider the other one directed at the Christian preacher:

"Oju ni nkan aladura ti o njagbe gba adura; eti olcrun ko di."

Translated, this means that it is the preacher who is impatient that shouts at the lord when he is praying; the lord is not deaf. A final illustration of the combined use of proverbs and humor cautions against inexplicit or ambiguous statements since the latter could get people into trouble.

A proverb cautions against inexplicit statement or vague messages in a different way. According to it:

"Asoro iyanro ni o pa elenpe isaju ti o ni igba wuwo ju awv lo."

Ambiguous statements by an Oba, Elempe the first was responsible for his death because he asserted that the calabash was heavier than the plate without clarifying the type of calabash which he meant. Another variant of the same proverb runs thus:

"Asoro iyanro ni o pa elenpe akoko ti o ni eyin omo mi ti a ba ti ji ni owuro ise kumo ni a o se o."

While our purpose in this contribution is to seek explanation for the adoption of proverbs with humorous contents in communication among the Yoruba, we cannot overlook the incipient conflict often hidden within some of these sayings. Indeed, some of the proverbs reflect some of the stereotypes which have persisted among the Yoruba about the different sub-cultures. A very good example is the yoruba stereotypes on the Ijebu-Yoruba. Consider this:

"Ijebu ba o naja onjo; o tii ko cwo lee na."

Translated, this means that when an Ijebu person negotiates for the purchase of a material with you, you should not rejoice prematurely until he has put down the amount which he intends to pay. This is because he may ultimately change his mind. The stereotype shout the Ijebu is that they are most reluctant to spend money. Indeed, some observers add that an Ijebu man who enters a university to study economics has merely gone to learn the theory; this is because he is already presumably versed in the practicals.

Another Yoruba proverb shows the negative preconceptions about the Ijebu and is reflected in the following:

"Won ni ki Ijebu takiti o ni ile nyo; ataiye ni won ni ko tani?"

The Ijebu man was asked to engage in acrobatic (jumping) performance and he complains that the grounds are slippery; does he think that people wanted him to survive the jump?. It is often said that this saying is partly a legacy of the Yoruba war years.

This is further reflected in the other saying that:

"Bi o ri Ijebu ti o ri ejo, koko pa Ijebu na; kekere Ijebu oro Agbalagba Ijebu oro."

(variants of this proverb exist for and on other groups like the Fulani, Ilorin, etc..)

Translated this means that if you see an Ijebu person at the same time that you see a snake, first of all dispose of the Ijebu.

The preceding clearly indicated the conflict and tension which have persisted among the Yoruba and which are often reflected in proverbs and humorous jokes in the contemporary context. Such proverbs combine Yoruba history with current realities in the meaning conveyed in humorous contexts.

Quite often the contexts suggest the differentiation between the indigene and the stranger. Consider for example the expectation which the Yoruba has of the stranger as reflected in the following proverb:

"Ibi ti onile ba ti nfi irungbon dana; Alejo ko gbodo bere ogunso."

Translated, the preceding states that wherever the indigene is using his beard to provide fire for cooking, a stranger must not ask for any assistance in providing the same service. The implication is that while there is always the awareness of the presence and privileges of strangers the expectation is that the stranger must always watch the sacrifices and self-denials of his hosts in order to avoid the making of unrealistic requests. Such awareness is however transmitted to the appropriate persons with humorous proverbs which often achieve the purpose without creating ill-feelings.

Another humorous proverb which is pregnant with meaning revolves around the problem of suffering:

"Ti awon ti iya ba nje ba nse ipade, won ko ni mo eniti yio se alaga."

The translated version of this proverb states that if all those who are suffering assemble for a meeting, they will find it most difficult if not impossible to decide who will chair the meeting.

This thinking derives from the assumption that after the first person may have spoken in respect of his peculiar suffering, almost half of the assembly will disappear from the meeting, in thankful recognition of their much more tolerable predicament and the fact that what they considered to be "suffering" was not as problematic or unchangeable as that of the first speaker in the assembly of sufferers. The proverb teaches tolerance, contentment and perseverance in the face of seemingly intractable difficulties, in full awareness of the fact there are people in worse conditions coping with greater difficulties.

III. Conclusion

The presentation above tends to underscore the wide spread use of humor in communication among the Yoruba. In addition however, it underscores the basic dictates of intercultural communication particularly with respect to the nature of self-presentation, conflict, values, predispositions or stereotypes, belief and general transfer of meaning in interpersonal and inter group communication.

Africa Online

By Haines Brown, CCSU History Department, Emeritus

One way to bring the Internet to the African masses has been to construct special kiosks. It is disappointing to hear that the CyberXpress kiosk project of CyberHost, Johannesburg, has fallen flat.

CyberHost's internet kiosk division was spun off as Cyberkiosk and sold to foreign investers, particularly Africa Internet, a US company focusing on opportunities in Africa, and in their hands the service will be limited to the more profitable corporate internet services rather than kiosks.

In light of GEAR and the heated debate over privatization in South Africa, this loss is significant, for it suggests that when resources are private and thus subject to international market forces, their control will gravitate toward sources of financial investment outside Africa, and also that the social utility of the resource will be truncated.

Ian Ward, a director of CyberHost, who left the company to assume responsibility for leading the new enterprise, suggests that kiosk project had to run "at a big loss because Telkom's connectivity costs are high and the margin we can charge above that is relatively small."

The ANC adopted a privatization policy shortly after it came to power, although this has threatened the alliance between it and the SACP and COSATU. As part of this policy, 30% of Telkom, the national telecommunications industry, was sold off three years ago to Telecom Malaysia and SBC Communications of the U.S. Being a private monopoly rather than a public service, Telkom has offered poor service with high costs, and it acquired a large debt burden.

Currently being discussed is how long Telkom's monopoly will be extended.


Film Series on African Scholars

Veteran Filmmaker St. Clair Bourne's "Doctor Ben"

(New York, NY) Veteran writer-producer-director St. Clair Bourne has completed post-production editing on Doctor Ben, a feature-length documentary chronicling controversial Black Studies advocate and Egyptologist Dr. Joseph ben-Jochannon widely known as Doctor Ben.

Executive produced by Wesley Snipes, written by Lou Potter and produced by Kimiko Fox through Nile Delta Films, DOCTOR BEN is the second film in the series, "African Scholars," which documents the lives, thinking and controversies surrounding eminent African-American scholars primarily ignored by the mainstream media.

DOCTOR BEN is a documentary road movie about Dr. Ben's legendary and controversial educational tour of Egypt's historic temples and tombs. The film looks at Doctor Ben's afrocentric and often humorous historical commentary as he leads his tour group of 30 through Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan.

The film was shot in Egypt and New York over the past year. During production in Egypt, not only did Bourne have to deal with the armed militia soldiers that were stationed everywhere to protect tourists from attack, but the daily temperature ranged from 102 degrees to 111 degrees.

Born in Ethiopia in 1917 and raised and educated in Cuba, Dr. Joseph ben-Jochannon is a master teacher with a forceful command of ancient and modern history. He uses wit, humor and common sense to accent history and expose what he considers to be historical distortions.

Dr. Ben has taught on the faculty of colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. His most recent assignment was as Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Languages, Al Azhar University in Egypt. Prior to that he served as Adjunct Professor of History and Egyptology at Cornell University's Africana Studies Research Center.

Among his many books are Africa - Mother of Western Civilization, Black Man of the Nile and His Family, and African Origins of the Major Western Religions.

St. Clair Bourne is a prolific and influential film maker, and one of the pioneers of contemporary African-American film making. He is the award-winning director, producer, and writer of over 40 films and television productions.

His most recent film is "Half Past Autumn; The Life and Works of Gordon Parks," which Bourne produced, will be broadcast in November, 2000 over the HBO cable network. His critically- acclaimed "Paul Robeson; Here I stand," the definitive biography of legendary and controversial singer, actor, and activist aired as part of the PBS Series "American Masters."

Bourne directed "John Henrik Clarke; A Great and Mighty Walk," the first film in the "African Scholars" series. His films have been seen on television networks and major film festivals across the United States and around the world, and several have been released theatrically. Bourne has been honored with retrospectives at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, anymore.



Comparing Mortu Nega and Flame

By Michelle Maitland, CCSU Student (H 476 African History Through Film)

"Mortu Nega," directed by Flora Gomes, and "Flame," directed by Ingrid Sinclair, both embody the spirit of African liberation movements in the latter quarter of the 20th century. Though the liberation movement of Guinea-Bissau in "Mortu Nega" was concerned with independence from Portuguese colonialism and government, and the liberation movement of Zimbabwe was preoccupied with independence from British colonialism and government, both movies focus on groups of people who wanted to regain their independence. Both films portray the independence of two countries which gained their freedom in a contemporary time period. Guinea-Bissau obtained its independence in 1975, whereas Zimbabwe obtained its independence in 1980.

These countries came into their own existence within five years of each other. An identical theme found in the movies was the relationship between women- an experience of feminine bonding. In "Mortu Nega," Diminga, wife of Sako, forged a friendship with an older woman from another village- Lebeth. This amicable alliance was one of nurturing and support. Founded on loyalty, the friendship did not dissolve after the military crisis abated. Even after the war ended, Diminga did not wish to part from Lebeth.

In "Flame," yet another relationship was seen between the movie's two protagonists- Florence (Flame) and Nyasha (Liberty). In youthful abandon, the two best friends left their village to embark upon the liberation struggle together. Through life's hardships, twists and turns, this friendship remained cohesive although it went through an evolutionary process. Despite the fact that this relationship nearly came to a point of rupture, it survived and further strengthened, indicating the amount of loyalty that existed between the two women.

Both films indicate the degree of commitment that women had towards the wars. Like many other women, both Diminga and Flame participated in the war efforts by giving food and supplies to the liberation forces. They also fought in combat roles in the military.

A great contrast is seen between the relationship between Diminga and Sako and that of Flame and her two lovers. The marriage of Diminga and Sako was portrayed as being loving, tender and enduring. At no time did Sako raise his hand to hurt Dminga. However, Flame, in turn, suffered from the victimization of rape, perpetrated by her first lover. She also endured domestic violence, and was battered by her second lover. Whereas Diminga and Sako stayed together "forever," neither of Flame's loves were everlasting. Diminga "won" in the art of love, but Flame lost all that she had. In "Mortu Nega," Sako demonstrated that he was respectful of Diminga. But the men who became involved with Flame, lacked respect for her.

Although "Flame"- banned due to the fact that it was thought to be subversive and pornographic (i.e. the rape scene) received a more controversial reaction in Africa, both it and "Mortu Nega" deal not only with the social situations of modern- day Africa and post-war disillusionment, they also strive to commemorate the past (each country's independence) and change both the present and future social climate of both nations.