Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Fela Sowande Writes About A Yoruba (Nigeria) Skin Color Name

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a three part post on personal names that refer to color in general and skin color names in particular.

This post presents an excerpt from a chapter of Fela Sowande's 1966 book The Mind Of A Nation- The Yoruba Child (Ibadan: Ibadan University). That excerpt gives the meaning of and an explanation for another Yoruba skin color name. Dr. Sowande (b. Abeokuta, Nigeria, May 1905; d. Ravenna, Ohio, United States, 13 March 1987) was a Nigerian musician, composer, and scholar.

I received a copy of that manuscript from a friend who had received it as a gift from Dr. Sowande when he lectured for a brief time at the University of Pittsburgh somewhere around 1973. The chapter on personal names from that manuscript is published on a page of my cultural blog because that's the chapter I'm most interested in, and because that book is so hard to find, at least in the United States.

Click Part I of this post.

Part I includes my remarks about the Irish name "Kieran" (meaning "little dark one" or "black" that was given to Mitt Romney's recently adopted grandson who is Black. Part I also includes an excerpt of a 2012 blog post entitled "Colonial Mentality" by Kemi Ogunniyi, a young woman of Nigerian descent who wrote about her impressions of the year (2010) that she spent in Nigeria. Part I also includes an excerpt of the comment that I wrote on that blog in response to that post, and a portion of Kemi's response to questions. Lastly, Part I also includes questions and responses about the meaning of other "skin color" names that were posted on a discussion thread of the Nigerian forum

Click for Part III of this post.

Part III features a list of Arabic names that refer to color in general or skin complexion in particular.

The content of this post is presented for cultural and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

The chapter entitled "Yoruba Names And Their Meanings" is found on pages 39-56 of the manuscript that I have entitled "The Mind Of A Nation- The Yoruba Child" by Fela Sowande (Ibadan, Nigeria, 1966). I've not ever seen a published copy of this book, but assume that these page numbers correspond to that published book. Click to read that entire chapter. Everything except the words given in brackets are quoted from that chapter.

Page 39
...“Yoruba names are therefore much more than mere identification tags, much more than mere "luggage labels"; each has a reason (a) for being just what it is; and (b) for being given to a particular individual. Yoruba names embody circumstances of birth, history, family, religion, or some other equally pertinent facts relevant to that particular individual bearing the name. Yoruba names are, in fact, in most cases contractions of whole sentences....

Page 46
[name given as #41]. "Fatoyinbo"
= Ifa to Oyinbo = Ifa is to be equated with Oyinbo. Here, "Oyinbo" is not [Note "not" is underlined] the white man," but the Yoruba child of Yoruba parents who at birth is light-skinned, and is held to bring good fortune to himself and to all connected with him.

Note on "Fatoyinbo"
This Yoruba name is salutary reminder that the most obvious-and seemingly correct amplification of Yoruba compound words is just as likely as not to lead us astray, and give us the most incorrect derivation of meanings. It pinpoints the fact that "derivation by amplification" could well be the very thing that guides us, not to, but away from the proper meaning of a compound word. With nothing else but the name to go on, "Fatoyinbo" would naturally be simplified into "Ifa to Oyinbo," and since the Yoruba word for "the white man" is "Oyinbo," the amplification would almost be bound to be understood as "Ifa is to be equated with the white man," and this might well be held to imply that Ifa is as important, or as great, or as powerful as "the white man," who is (supposedly) all these things, on account of his very considerable scientific and artistic achievements. If we remembered to ask: "How did traditional Ifa come to take note of the white man is such a direct manner?" we would certainly not lack those-including those Yorubas who see no good in Ifa anyway-who would readily, if not anxiously advance the theory that this is proof positive that Ifa is of fairly recent growth, or that this is but one instance of those adulterations of which they have complained, perpetrated by unscrupulous Ifa Priests whose sole aim is to extort money from their unsuspecting and innocent victims. If we had to depend solely on the Yoruba name, and on the supposed infallibility of derivation through amplification, there would be no answer to the above, or any similar, theory.

Page 47
We have, however, two ways of approach open to us. One is to be found in the legend concerning Orunmila, which is qute relevant and interesting enough, but deals with the light-skinned Yoruba man-the 'Oyinbo' or Ebo-as a general type. The other deals with the Primordial Ebo, the Oyinbo who is in every sense a Yoruba man born and bred, and who is apparently the "archetype for all the subsequent Ebos; for this Primordial Ebo, we turn to a Stanza of Ifa, from the Odu "Ogunda-meji."

The legend relates that, one day, a hunter went out to hunt, and climbed a tree; there he saw someone walking backwards and forwards on the same spot; this hunter captured the person, and found that it was a woman; the hunter took her home; he offered her meat, but she would not eat; yam, but she would not eat. Then, one day, as this hunter was coming back from the forest, he came upon Orunmila, who was offering hen's eggs to Esu. Orunmila gave one egg to the hunter; this woman began to pick up the egg-shells tp eat. Orunmila thereupon offered her an egg, which she accepted and ate. The hunter was suprised, and told Orunmila that since he had captured this woman, she had not eaten anything; he offered to sell her to Orunmila, and Orunmila bought the woman for 20,000 cowries. Orunmila asked the hunter for the name of the woman, to which the hunter replied that when he first found her, she was apprently suffered from giddiness, so they named her "Oyi" [Giddiness].

Orunmila now enquired from Ifa whether this woman-the daughter of Olokun-would bear him children. She was told to sacrifice twenty chickens and two thousand cowries in twenty places; she did, and gave birth to twenty children; thens she offered sacrifice a second time, thirty chickens and two thousand cowries in thirty places, and she gave birth to thirty children. Then she conceived again. This time, she and Orunmila decided to pay a visit to her father, the Olukun [the Sea-God]. Olokun received them with great joy, and gave Oyi some hot liquor to drink; which she did.

Page 48
When her baby arrived, it was white-skinned, and it was said that it was the hot liquor that had peeled off its dark skin; and so the baby was called "Ebo," literally, eyiti o bo" that which has been peeled.This child was born in the house of Olokun. Orunmila then told the child to make his home with Olokun.

Here the Stanza of Ifa ends, but Olokun has always been recognized as a fabulously wealthy god. This grandchild of his, Ebo, is therefore like the grandchild of a multimillionaire, who is the apple of his grandfather's eye, and who attracts incredible good fortune to himself, and to all with whom he is connected.

With the foregoing as a background, and bearing in mind that, in some places in Yorubaland, Fatoyinbo is pronounced "Fatoyibo," we may [Note: "may" is underlined] also amplify this name into "Ifa ti Oyi bo," and-as the traditionalist say that "ifa is Oro" [Oro ni Ifa]- we may suggest that "Ifa ti Oyi bo" is really doing duty for "Oro ti Oyi bo-the Spirit child whose dark skin was peeled by Oyi," thorugh the hot liquor she drank while carrying the baby. All this may mean exactly nothing, and the usefulness of it warns us against being too fully committed to the very obvious, and being too fully dependent on the Yoruba Dictionary. It is likely, however, that the Stanza from "Ogunda-meji" just quoted may have supplied the origin of the Yourba term "Oyinbo" for the white man, who may have been thought to have his natural skined 'peeled' somewhere, sometime, for some mysterious reason. Or perhaps he was thought to be the descendant of the first "Ebo," the child of Oyi and Orunmila?

Not all Yorubas (or Africans) are dark-skinned. Some are fair-skinned, and some are light-skinned-the albinos. It is said that the traditional Yoruba believed that Orisanla does the moulding of the individual person when the sun is below the horizon. Orisanla moulds the head only, but within the head is the complete man, in embryo. In those individual cases where Orisanla does not complete his job before dawn, the person is consequently light-skinned; where Orisanla does not complete his job until after dawn, the person is consequently an albino.

Page 49
Inability to complete the moulding of the person while the sun is still below the horizon is said to be due either to available material proving refractory, or to mistakes having been made which need to be corrected, time being thus lost.

According to this view, man is not mass-produced. Each individual is given specific attention on specific lines indicated by his "case-history," by which the "Oke" child is born completely covered by his amniotic sac, and an "Olugbodi" has six toes, etcetera. But the albino is one thing, the European is quite another matter altogether."

My thanks to Fela Sowande for writing about Yoruba names and for his musical legacy.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Very informative read, thank you.

    However, the website for the chapter on Fela Sowande'd book is inactive. Have you moved it to another location ?

    Looking forward to your reply,thanks in advance.


    1. Greetings Anonymous.

      I've just read your comment. Here's the link to the complete chapter of the Fela Sowande book that I referred to in this pancocojams post: "Yoruba Names And Their Meanings".

      As you noted, my cocojams website where I had originally posted this book excerpt is no longer active. I'll correct that link in this article.

      Best wishes and One love!

  2. Hello again Sister Azizi,

    Thank you very much for your reply, I have enjoyed reading the chapter.
    Do you know if there are any plans to publish the book in full ?
    I believe that the Yoruba Studies Association of Nigeria, Universities, Colleges and other Organisations teaching Yoruba Studies across Nigeria's Yoruba Speaking States and Benin Republic's Yoruba Speaking Provinces would find the book very interesting. Here is the facebook page of the Yoruba Studies Association:

    Once again, thanks for all the good work.

    Stay Blessed.


  3. Ummm, my bad. I published the wrong url in my reply above.

    Here again, is the link for the Yoruba Studies Association of Nigeria: