Skip to main content Accessibility help

Discourse and its disclosures: Yoruba women and the sanctity of abuse

  • Andrew Apter

If ritual songs of obscenity and abuse have become a familiar topic in Africanist ethnography since Evans-Pritchard's first discussion of their ‘canalising’ functions in 1929, few studies have paid sufficient attention to the socio-political and discursive contexts of the song texts themselves. The present article moves in that direction by relocating abusive songs of the Oroyeye festival in an Ekiti Yoruba town within the local forms of history and knowledge that motivate their interpretation and performative power. After reviewing the cult's historical interventions in local political affairs, the article examines the repressed historical memory of a displaced ruling dynasty and its associated line of civil chiefs as invoked by the song texts in two festival contexts. In the first—the Àjàkadì wrestling match—which occurs at night, male age mates from different ‘sides’ of the town fight to stand their ground and topple their opponents while young women praise the winners and abuse the losers with sexual obscenities. In the second festival context, during the day, the elder ‘grandmothers’ of Oroyeye target malefactors and scoundrels by highlighting their misdeeds against a discursive background of homage and praise. In this fashion the female custodians of a displaced ruling line bring repressed sexual and political sub-texts to bear on male power competition, lineage fission, and antisocial behaviour. More generally, they mobilise the fertility and witchcraft of all Yoruba women to disclose hidden crimes and speak out with impunity.

Hide All
Abraham, R. C. 1962. Dictionary of Modern Yoruba. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Apter, A. 1983a. ‘In praise of high office: the politics of panegyric in three southern Bantu tribes’, Anthropos 78, 149–68.
Apter, A. 1983b. ‘In dispraise of the king: rituals “against” rebellion in south-east Africa’, Man (new series) 18 (3), 521–34.
Apter, A. 1987. ‘Rituals of power: the politics oiorisa worship in Yoruba society’. Ph.D. thesis, New Haven: Yale University.
Apter, A. 1992. Black Critics and Kings: the hermeneutics of power in Yoruba society. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Apter, A. 1993. ‘Atinga revisited: Yoruba witchcraft and the cocoa economy, 1950–51’, in , J. and Comaroff, J. (eds), Modernity and its Malcontents: ritual and power in postcolonial Africa, pp. 111–28. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Apter, A. 1995. ‘Notes on orisha cults in the Ekiti Yoruba Highlands’, Cahiers d'études africaines, 138–9, XXXV–2–3, 369–401.
Asiwaju, A. I. 1975. ‘Efe poetry as a source for western Yoruba history’, in W., Abimbola (ed.), Yoruba Oral Tradition: poetry in music, dance and drama, pp. 199266. Ife: University of Ife, Department of African Languages and Literatures.
Barber, K. 1989. ‘Interpreting oriki as history and as literature’, in K., Barber and P.F., de Moraes Farias (eds), Discourse and its Disguises: the interpretation of African oral texts, pp. 1323. African Studies Series 1, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
Barber, K. 1990. ‘Oríkì, women and the proliferation and merging of the orisa’, Africa 60 (3), 313–37.
Barber, K. 1991a. I Could Speak until Tomorrow: oríkì, women and the past in a Yoruba town. International African Library 7, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, and Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, for the International African Institute.
Barber, K. 1991b. ‘Multiple discourses in Yoruba oral literature’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 73 (3), 1124.
Barber, K., and de Moraes Farias, P. F. 1989. ‘Introduction’, in Barber, K. and Farias, P. F. de Moraes (eds), Discourse and its Disguises: the interpretation of African oral texts, pp. 110. African Studies Series 1, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
Bastian, M. 1993. ‘“Bloodhounds who have no friends”: witchcraft and locality in the Nigerian popular press’, in , J. and Comaroff, J. (eds), Modernity and its Malcontents: ritual and power in postcolonial Africa, pp. 129–66. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Beier, U. 1958. ‘Gelede masks’, Odu 6, 523.
Belasco, B. 1980. The Entrepreneur as Culture Hero. New York: Praeger.
Carr, F. B. 1934. ‘The Ata of Ayede: allegations against’. O.P. 626/1, Communication from the Resident, Ondo Province, to the District Officer, Ekiti Division, Ado-Ekiti, 1 November. Nigerian National Archives, University of Ibadan.
Drewal, H., and Drewal, M. 1983. Gelede: art and female power among the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Drewal, H., and Drewal, M. 1987. ‘Composing time and space in Yoruba art’, Word and Image 3 (3), 225–51.
Duranti, A., and Goodwin, C. (eds), 1992. Rethinking Context: language as an interactive phenomenon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1965. ‘Some collective expressions of obscenity in Africa’ in The Position of Women in Primitive Societies and other Essays in Social Anthropology, pp. 76101. New York: Free Press.
Fernandez, J. W. 1986. Persuasions and Performances: the play of tropes in culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Flynn, D. 1997. ‘Borders and Boundaries: gender, ideology and exchange along the Benin-Nigeria border’. Ph.D. thesis, Evanston, III.: Northwestern University.
Forde, D. 1951. The Yoruba-speaking Peoples of South-western Nigeria. London: International African Institute.
Gal, S. 1991. ‘Beneath speech and silence: the problematics of research on language and gender’, in M., di Leonardo (ed.), Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, pp. 175203. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Gluckman, M. 1954. Rituals of Rebellion in South-east Africa. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Goody, J. 1970. ‘Sideways or downwards? Lateral and vertical succession, inheritance and descent in Africa and Eurasia’, Man (new series) 5 (4), 627–38.
Griaule, M. 1948. ‘L'alliance cathartique’, Africa 18 (4), 242–58.
Hanks, W. 1992. ‘The indexical ground of deictic reference’, in A., Duranti and C., Goodwin (eds), Rethinking Context: language as an interactive phenomenon, pp. 4676. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harper, P. 1970. ‘The role of dance in the Gelede ceremonies of the village of Ijio’, Odu 4, 6791.
Harris, G. 1978. Casting out Anger: religion among the Taita of Kenya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heald, S. 1982. ‘The making of men: the relevance of vernacular psychology to the interpretation of a Gisu ritual’, Africa 52 (1), 1536.
Heald, S. 1989. Controlling Anger: the sociology of Gisu violence. Manchester: Manchester University Press and Bloomington: Indiana University Press for the International African Institute.
Hoch-Smith, J. 1978. ‘Radical female sexuality: the witch and the prostitute’, in J., Hoch-Smith and A., Spring (eds), pp. 245–67. Women in Ritual and Symbolic Roles. New York: Plenum Press.
Idowu, B. 1970. ‘The challenge of witchcraft’, Orita 4 (1), 316.
Irvine, Judith. 1993. ‘Insult and responsibility: verbal abuse in a Wolof village’, in Jane, Hill and Judith, Irvine (eds), Responsibility and Evidence in Oral Discourse, pp. 104–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Irvine, Judith. 1996. ‘Shadow conversations: the indeterminacy of participant roles’, in M., Silverstein and G., Urban (eds), The Natural Histories of Discourse, pp. 131–59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Johnson, S. 1921. The History of the Yorubas. Lagos: CMS Bookshops.
Junod, H. 1927. The Life of a South African Tribe. Second edition, two volumes, London: Macmillan.
Krapf-Askari, E. 1966. ‘Time and classifications—an ethnographic and historical case study’, Odu 2 (2), 318.
Labouret, H. 1929. ‘La parenté à plaisanteries en Afrique Occidentale’, Africa 2 (3), 244–54.
Leach, E. 1958. ‘Concerning Trobriand clans and the kinship category “tabu”’, in J., Goody (ed.), The Developmental Cycle of Domestic Groups, pp. 120–45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lloyd, P. C. 1955. ‘The Yoruba lineage’, Africa 25 (3), 235–51.
Lloyd, P. C. 1962. Yoruba Land Law. London: Oxford University Press for the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Makinde, M. 1988. African Philosophy, Culture and Traditional Medicine. Ohio University Monographs in International Studies, Africa Series 53, Athens, Oh.: Center for International Studies, University of Ohio.
Matory, J. 1994. Sex and the Empire that is no more: gender and the politics of metaphor in Oyo Yoruba religion. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
Morton-Williams, P. 1956. ‘The Atinga cult among the south-western Yoruba: a sociological analysis of a witch-finding movement’, Bulletin de l'IFAN 18 (3–4), 315–34.
Morton-Williams, P. 1960a. ‘Yoruba responses to the fear of death’, Africa 30 (1), 3440.
Morton-Williams, P. 1960b. ‘The Yoruba Ogboni cult in Oyo’, Africa 30 (4), 362–74.
Norbeck, E. 1963. ‘African rituals of conflict’, American Anthropologist 65, 1254–79.
Obayemi, A. 1971. ‘The Yoruba and Edo-speaking peoples and their neighbours before 1600’, in J., Ajayi and M., Crowder (eds), History of West Africa I, pp. 196263. New York: Longman.
Ogunba, O. 1982. ‘Yoruba occasional festival songs’, in A., Afolayan (ed.), Yoruba Language and Literature, pp. 3656. Ife: University of Ife Press.
Olabimtan, A. 1970. ‘An introduction to Efe poems of the Egbado Yoruba’, in Staff Seminar Papers and Subsequent Discussions, pp. 192216. Lagos: School of African and Asian Studies, University of Lagos.
Olatunji, O. 1984. Features of Yoruba Poetry. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.
Olupona, J. K. 1991. Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community: a phenomenological study of Ondo Yoruba festivals. Stockholm Studies in Comparative Religion 28, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
Parkin., D. 1980. ‘The creativity of abuse’, Man (new series) 15, 4564.
Paulme, D. 1939. ‘Parenté à plaisanteries et alliance par le sang en Afrique Occidentale’, Africa 12 (4), 433–44.
Prince, R. 1961. ‘The Yoruba image of the witch’, Journal of Mental Science 107, 795805.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1952. ‘On joking relationships’, in Structure and Function in Primitive Society, pp. 90104. London: Cohen & West. (First published 1940 in Africa 13, 195–210.)
Reay, M. 1959. ‘Two kinds of ritual conflict’, Oceania 29, 290–6.
Schwab, W. 1955. ‘Kinship and lineage among the Yoruba’, Africa 25 (4), 352–74.
Silverstein, M. 1976. ‘Shifters, linguistic categories, and cultural description’, in K., Basso and H., Selby (eds), Meaning in Anthropology, pp. 1156. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Silverstein, M. 1993. ‘Metapragmatic discourse and metapragmatic function’, in J., Lucy (ed.), Reflexive Language, pp. 3358. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein, M., and Urban, G. (eds), 1996. Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Smith, M. G. 1957. ‘The social function and meaning of Hausa praise-singing’, Africa 27 (1), 2645.
Thieme, D. 1969. ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Yoruba Musical Instruments’. Studies in Music 37, Ph.D. thesis, Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America.
Thompson, R. F. 1976. Black Gods and Kings. Reprinted. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Turner, V. 1967. ‘Betwixt and between: the liminal period in rites de passage’, in The Forest of Symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual, pp. 93112. Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press.
Van den Berghe, P. 1963. ‘Institutionalized licence and normative stability’, Cahiers d'études africaines 3, 413–23.
Yai, O. 1989. ‘Issues in oral poetry: criticism, teaching and translation’, in Barber, K. and Farias, P. Moraes (eds), Discourse and its Disguises: the interpretation of African oral texts, pp. 5969. African Studies Series 1, Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
Yai, O. n.d. ‘Nana versus Ogun: affirming the female voice in Yoruba oral literature’. Unpublished MS.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed