Traditional Yoruba Culture Affected by Outside Influence

In the conglomeration of states that make up the country of Nigeria, West Africa, is the land of the Yoruba, an ethnic group of people who have a unique culture that separates them from the rest of the world. The traditional Yoruba marriage ceremonies and rituals are no exception. However, due to British colonialism and Christian missionary influences in the early 20th century, marriage traditions, rules and customs of the Yoruba people were changed through cultural contamination. Religious teachings preached the ways of monogamy, a direct contradiction to the polygynous ways of the Yoruba, while British ruling enforced new laws of marriage, allowing Yoruba women more freedom to divorce their husbands and get an education and career. Furthermore, due to urbanisation, the traditional Yoruba steps of arranging a marriage have been altered. 

YorubaCredit: Wikimedia

A Yoruba Marriage

There are only two forms of marriage among the Yoruba, polygyny, the union of one man with two or more women, or monogamy, the union of one man to one woman. The traditional rituals of organising a marriage between two Yoruba people are rigorous and complex. A prospective marriage begins with the husband-to-be’s family sending out ‘spies’ to investigate the girl’s family and background. If the family is satisfied, a middleman is sent to the girl’s family to offer the proposal of marriage. The girl’s family then sends their own ‘spies’ before accepting the marriage. It is only after the proposal that the husband-to-be may visit his bride.

Before, messages between the pair can only be sent through the middleman who usually is someone well-known by the two families. Anything pertaining to the marriage arrangement is known and directly controlled by the middleman, whether it is communication, gifts or the discussion of the bride price, as the middleman can then provide direct evidence if there is any financial or settlement dispute, as well as any divorce action.  The final step is the actual marriage where the husband would also present the girl’s parents with gifts and money.

However, with urbanisation occurring over time, the Yoruba’s traditional steps of arranging a marriage have been altered. The traditional marriage system is only practised by a small amount of the Yoruba population because its steps have been made obsolete. Young Yoruba men and women are now travelling away from their homes, so it is difficult to arrange a middleman who is known by both families, so the use of both the middleman and ‘spies’ has become difficult and unnecessary.

Urbanisation has allowed for young, unmarried Yoruba people to travel far away from their original homelands and their families, effectively altering the traditional steps of uniting a marriage. The idea of a middleman and of ‘spies’ became obsolete, which in turn altered the power and control the families had over the marriages. Without a middleman or ‘spies’, Yoruba women and men are able to interact together before marriage, and in turn, organise their own marriage partners and unions.

Religious Impact on Yoruba Culture

Christian missionaries entered the relatively untouched Yoruba land at the beginning of the 20th century. Through religious teachings and preaching, missionaries enforced monogamy as the most desirable form of marriage. This meant a complete breakdown of the traditional custom of polygamy.

Yoruba polygynous marriages, where a man has more than one wife, were common among the wealthy and elite Yoruba. This idea of multiple wives is usually based upon the severe sexual taboos a wife has. From when a Yoruba wife becomes pregnant, until three years after the child is born, it is taboo for the wife to have sex. It is during this time that the man usually turns to another sexual partner. This tradition began to change under the influence of Western culture.

Under the spread of religious teachings also came education of Yoruba women who were involved in the Church. With this came a women’s sense of marital freedom. Along with urbanisation and growth, it allowed for women to travel and forge careers that they previously wouldn’t have been able to do. By the mid 1920s, Yoruba women were turning away from the idea of being a domestic housewife, and instead opting to forge a career to support themselves independently. The spread of Christianity through the Yoruba people can be attributed to the changes in the marriage structure of the Yoruba.

Divorce Among the Yoruba

Before British colonialism, divorce was practically unknown. Married Yoruba women were treated as a type of property; with the wife being responsible for the family she married into until she died. When her husband died, the Yoruba woman would be ‘inherited’ by one of his brothers. The British introduced new laws which abolished certain practices and institutions that they believed were inhumane and uncivilised. During the first twenty years of British colonialism over the Yoruba people, laws and regulations were enforced throughout the Yoruba area that prohibited child betrothal, forced marriage, woman-to-woman marriage, and allowed women easier access to divorce.

In a group of people where divorce and women’s freedom was not a common aspect, this opened the floodgates for  Yoruba women to be able to divorce their husband and get an education and career, which allowed them the freedom to financially support themselves, rather than relying on their husband or families. Divorce rates among the Yoruba skyrocketed. The Court system was inundated that a second court had to be set up in 1920. Figures show that between 1939 and 1947 the number of divorce cases rose from 7,035 to 12,176. Yoruba women were now no longer bound to unwanted marriages and were able to gain control of their lives and future. British colonialism granted marital freedom to Yoruba women, allowing them a chance to get an education and a career.

The marriage traditions of the Yoruba people of Nigeria are complex and structured. There are rules, and stages to the organisation, proposal and eventual marriage, as discussed in this essay. However, due to outside factors, these traditions have been altered over time. Urbanisation has changed the traditional concept of a ‘middleman’ and ‘spies’ to initiate and investigate the prospective wife or husband, with young Yoruba people living far away from their families and prospective partners. Missionaries spreading Christianity preached the monogamous marriage, a direct contrast to the Yoruba’s polygynous ways. British colonialism and ruling altered the marriage laws, allowing more rights and freedom to Yoruba woman, so they could divorce their husband and become educated and independent women.


If you have found the Yoruda culture interesting, you can low read about their famous type of music, the Apala genre



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