Friday, 6 February 2015

Our History: Yoruba Literature

Yoruba literature is the spoken and written literature of the Yoruba people, the largest ethno-linguistic group in Nigeria, and in Africa. The Yorùbá language is spoken in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, as well as in dispersed Yoruba communities throughout the world.

Yoruba did not have a common written form before the nineteenth century. Many of the early contributions to Yoruba writing and formal study were made by English-educated Anglican priests. The first Yoruba grammar was published in 1843 by Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther. He was of Yoruba origin himself. The written form of the Yoruba language comes from a Conference on Orthography from the Church Missionary Society in Lagos, in 1875. The first history of the Yoruba people was compiled by Reverend Samuel Johnson, who was also of Yoruba origin, in 1897. Thus, the formation of written Yoruba was facilitated by Yoruba people themselves despite the use of the Roman alphabet.

Yoruba religion is intertwined with history, with Yoruba claiming to descend from divinities, and some kings becoming deified after their deaths. Itan is the word for the sum of Yoruba religion, poetry, song, and history. Yoruba divinities are called Orishas, and make up one of the most complex pantheons in oral history.

Ifá, a complex system of divination, involves recital of Yoruba poetry containing stories and proverbs bearing on the divination. A divination recital can take a whole night. The body of this poetry is vast, and passed on between Ifa oracles.

The first novel in the Yorùbá language was Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale (The Forest of A Thousand Demons), although the literal translation is "The bravery of a hunter in the forest of demons", written in 1938 by Chief Daniel O. Fagunwa (1903–1963). It contains the picaresque tales of a Yoruba hunter encountering folklore elements, such as magic, monsters, spirits, and gods. It was one of the first novels to be written in any African language. Fagunwa wrote other works based on similar themes, and remains the most widely read Yorùbá-language author.

Amos Tutuola (1920–1997) was greatly inspired by Fagunwa, but wrote in an intentionally rambling, broken English, reflecting the oral tradition. Tutuola gained fame for The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1946, pub 1952), and other works based on Yoruba folklore.

Senator Afolabi Olabimtan (1932–1992) was a writer, along with professor, and politician. He wrote Yoruba language novels about modern Nigerian life and love, such as Kekere Ekun (1967; [Lad Nicknamed] Leopard Cub), and Ayanmo (1973; Predestination).

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