Saturday, July 24, 2021

Is The Nigerian Word "Oyinbo" ("Oyibo") An Insulting Referent?

This is Part I in a two part pancocojams series about the Nigerian referent "Oyinbo". 

The first excerpt in Part I quotes a portion of a 1966 book by Dr. Fela Sowande entitled 
The Mind Of A Nation- The Yoruba Child. That portion of that book is from the chapter entitled Yoruba Names And Their Meanings" and refers to the Yoruba name "Fatoyinbo".

The second excerpt in Part I of this pancocojams series is from a Wikipedia page about the word "Oyinbo" and the third excerpt is from a 2009 article that was written by a Nigerian professor Kola Tubosun. Selected comments from that article's discussion thread are also  included in that pancocojams post.

Click for Part II of this pancocojams series. Part II presents various online excerpts about what appears to be a widely known Nigerian children's chant/song called "Oyinbo pepper" (also given as "Oyinbo pepe" or "Oyibo Pepe".)

The content of this post is presented for socio-cultural purposes and onomastic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click "Yevu" And "Obroni" (Ghanaian Referents For White People And For Foreigners, Including Black People Who Were Weren't Born & Raised In Ghana) fpr a closely related pancocojams post.

Also, click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled The West African Referent "Toubab" Doesn't Only Mean "White Person".
[Pancocojams Editor's Note]
This is an excerpt from a chapter of Fela Sowande's 1966 book The Mind Of A Nation- The Yoruba Child (Ibadan: Ibadan University). This portion of that chapter entitled "Yoruba Names And Their Meanings" gives the meaning of and an explanation for the Yoruba skin color name "Fatoyinbo". Dr. Sowande (b. Abeokuta, Nigeria, May 1905; d. Ravenna, Ohio, United States, 13 March 1987) was a Nigerian musician, composer, and scholar. 

I met Dr. Sowande when he lectured for a brief time at the University of Pittsburgh somewhere around 1973.  Dr. Sowande gifted a friend of my with the manuscript for his book and that friend lent it to me because he was aware of my interest in Nigerian culture and my interest in naming traditions. I published this chapter on Yoruba names around 2010 on my no longer active cultural blog, and later on this pancocojams blog because of my interest in Nigerian culture and because of my interest in names. 

Click to read that entire chapter. Everything except the words given in brackets are quoted from that chapter.
-end of Pancocojams Editor's Note-   

The Mind Of A Nation- The Yoruba Child" by Fela Sowande
Page 39 "Yoruba Names And Their Meanings"
...“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; then 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."
This quote is the complete section of Dr. Fela Sowande's writing on the name "Fatoyinbo".

Read comment #9 in Excerpt #3 below for the name "Ifatoyinbo". That is the same name as "Fatoyinbo".
"Oyinbo is a Nigerian word used to refer to Caucasians.[1][2][3] In Nigeria, it is generally used to refer to a person of European descent or people perceived to not be culturally African. The word is pronounced oyinbo in Yoruba language and oyibo in Igbo speaking areas. Both terms are valid in Pidgin English.


The word may be coined from the Yoruba translation of “peeled skin” or “skinless,” which, in Yoruba, translates to “yin” – scratch “bo” – off/peel; the "O" starting the word "Oyinbo" is a pronoun. Hence, "Oyinbo" literally translates to "the man with a peeled off skin".[4][5] Other variations of the term in Yoruba language include Eyinbo, which is usually shorted as "Eebo".[6]

Oyinbo is also used in reference to nonwhite people who are foreign, Westernised, or otherwise perceived to not be culturally African, such as liberated black slaves from the Americas (known as Saros) who resettled in Nigeria during the late 19th and early 20th century and were called Oyibo ocha ("African Europeans") by the local population.[7] Sierra Leonean missionaries, according to Ajayi Crowther, a Yoruba, and John Taylor, an Igbo, descendants of resettled slaves, were referred to as oyibo ojii (Igbo: black foreigners) or "native foreigners" by the people of Onitsha in the late 19th century.[8][9]



In Central and West Africa the name for a person of European descent is Toubab.

In Ghana the word used for a 'white' person or foreigner is 'Obroni' in the local languages, those of the Akan family."...:

From  "Is "Oyinbo" A Derogatory Word?" Posted by Kola Tubosun, August 27, 2009
"While teaching my second Yoruba class on Wednesday, I had mentioned the word “Oyinbo” to my students in passing, within a conversation, when I didn’t intend to, and when the topic of discussion at the moment could have proceeded a bit smoothier had I not committed the second unforgivable error of subsequently attempting to explain its usage in Nigeria. I have had cause to think about the word usage for quite a while now and I have mostly questioned its use, so I might have been a little too enthusiastic in responding when the questioner took cue from my explanation on a totally different matter and asked whether when I said that children called foreigners “Oyinbo” in my country, I meant that they used the word to make jest of them.

….Now, let’s examine the word, “Oyinbo”, which is supposed to refer to “(a) White Person/Caucasian/Non Black-African”. The etymology has never been agreed on, and even though a famous scholar once wrote that it is derived from “Oyin + bo” which roughly means “(Someone) peeled by the honeybee,” the word still doesn’t make much sense on its own. The word is used today both in urban, rural, and in educated circles to refer to the foreigner, most especially those with fairer skin colour (African Americans included). Those excluded from the authentic list of Oyinbos and are often called into the list mostly in jest are the really fairskinned Africans, and the Albinos. Every other person with European/Caucasian blood in them are Oyinbos, and they are called by that name both in public and in private, which brings a huge question on whether the users of the word ever mean it as a derogatory expression. The answer of course would be a NO. However, I personally have never considered it a compliment of any sort when while walking with a white/caucasian person (even within a campus environment), passers-by most of whom are complete and unwelcome strangers yell “Oyinbo!” while pointing and giggling excitely at the now totally embarrased stranger. …”So, when used in a civil, polite conversation, Oyinbo is mainly a harmless term of reference, but it is insulting only when it is yelled out loud, especially by a(n unaquainted, unfriendly) stranger.” How does one explain all of this easily in a class of an elementary course on language and culture without raising red flags and unnecessarily preconditioning the mind of impressionable students to a hostile, negative cultural experience? That was my dilemma on that beautiful Wednesday afternoon.

I resolved the situation in favour of common sense, and the concise explanation I gave before moving to the next topic was a “No please, that’s not a derogative word. It is a fun word of endearment used by the Yoruba to refer to those they perceive differently because of their skin colour.” But I left the class a little worried that I myself do not totally agree with that description for its lack of depth and breath to capture all that the word “oyinbo” entails, and for the way that definition might be wrongly construed as a racist/derogatory tag. Fact is, the image that flashed across my mind when I think about it is that of a cacophonous horde of dirty little stray children chanting “Oyinbo pepper” after a foreign pedestrian on a public Lagos park, and totally enjoying the embarassment on the face of that now despairing foreigner who curses under her breath, wonders what went wrong with this world, and wishes she had not taken up the invitation to come visit Nigeria. Yorubaland.

What do you think?"
Selected comments from this article's discussion thread (with numbers added for referencing purposes only).

rayo says:

August 27, 2009

"i think on its own, oyinbo is not a derogatory word, but i suppose like most words, its meaning depends on the context in which it is being used, that’s what determines whether its derogatory or not. or is there anor word to describe a white man in yoruba coz i seem to kno of none.

p.s i’d forgotten the phrase ‘oyinbo peper’ till u used it here, made me smyl nd remember being young…"
Some other comments that mention the chant "Oyinbo pepper" are included in Part II of this pancocojams series.

2. adeleke says:

August 27, 2009 

"I think of names like Oguntoyinbo, Sangotoyinbo, Adetoyinbo, Oladoyinbo,Ifatoyinbo and agree that Oyinbo is both a descriptive name and a term of endearment. Indeed, to call a light complexioned African, an “oyinbo “is mostly a compliment. Indeed, an educated, well spoken person may also be called so. I recall the phrase “afinju oyinbo”, for instance.

As for the root of the word, more research needs to be done."

3.  Doyinbo says:

July 27, 2010 

"Most people do not know the true origin but it is not a derogatory word but actually is a word of superiority, reverence, greatness. pardon me but I cannot remember the yoruba scholar since this dates back to my childhood and the search for the meaning of my name. Oyinbo is a youruba word used for someone you lift high, superior and revere for example the yoruba surnames aladetoyinbo, odetoyinbo, oguntoyinbo. When the white man came they were originally thought as spirits ( superior beings) and they worshiped them hence they gave them the name “oyinbo” . The name or word precedes the whiteman"

4. Kola Tubosun says:

January 21, 2011 

"Thank you everyone for the interesting comments. This article was written over a year ago, and little did I know while writing it that it would generate this much attention more than a year later. Like you would see in the content of the post, I did not posit that the word was derogatory and I wrote it so as to bring out perspectives many of which have been enlightening.

I know that the word is inherently harmless – as could be seen in the many names that we give ourselves – Oguntoyinbo (“The god of Iron is just like the white man”), Adetoyinbo (“Royalty equates one to the white man”) etc. I also know that it is usually hard to explain it to a foreigner without sounding awkward. The difference between this word as the other one used in a more offensive way in American English is that while one carries the burden of history of segregation, prejudice and violence, one carries a kind of awe and friendliness. Both however describe people different from us because of their skin colour and race, and that’s where the similarity ends.

There are a few racially offensive words in Yoruba, but Oyinbo is not one of them. Thanks again, everyone."

5. The dude says:

July 8, 2011 

"It is not derogatory as some scamm baiters would have you believe. It has been used long before the white man came along"

6. Oladipo says:

November 29, 2011 

"As an Ogbomoso-born oyinbo who spent his childhood in Yorubaland and has enjoyed several return visits as an adult, I must say that I have NEVER heard the term “oyinbo” used in a derogatory way. In fact, as one on the receiving end of the term, I always knew it as a respectful term of greeting and reference. Whenever I heard the term, I knew I was being welcomed. I would be delighted to be hearing a crowd of children screaming that term right now, because it would mean that I was back home."

7. Caroline Gurney (@cmgurney) says:

December 22, 2011 

"Hi Kola. Thanks for this interesting post. I came across it whilst trying to research the origin of the word “oyinbo”. I’m an English woman who lived in Lagos for over three years during the 1980s. We were told that the word originally meant “ghost” or “spirit” and was applied to white people when they first appeared in Yorubaland because their pale skins looked ghostly. I don’t know whether this is true but it seems to tie in with what Doyinbo has written above.

During my time in Lagos I was called Oyinbo in two ways. The first was by small children who would shout it at me cheerfully. I think that was because white people were still not a common sight in some areas. It also drew attention to the small, cheerful, sweet looking little child who had shouted and sometimes led to a Naira or a packet of sweets coming their way. A good reason for them to continue the practice of shouting cheerfully at all white people 🙂

The second usage was by grown-ups, in anger, as in “you Oyinbos think you can come over here and …”. That usage was derogatory, and technically racist, but totally understandable given the colonial history and the huge wealth disparity between white expatriates in Nigeria and most of the local population. It never offended me and was not a common occurence. As a guest in Nigeria, I was generally treated well and the most common word used towards me was the polite “Madam”.

What saddens me now is the way “Oyinbo” is used in a derogatory way by young Nigerians living here in the UK. Do a Twitter search and you’ll see how it is used for put downs and insults. Today I saw, “Oyinbo ppl age so disgustingly”, “My dad goes oyinbo’s have bad skin there bodies crumple loool” and “These oyinbo toddlers on the bus need a beating”.
This is the way this comment was published in that discussion.

8. Kola Tubosun says:

December 22, 2011 

"Thank you Caroline for the insightful comment. Since I made this post over a year ago it has received one of the most robust commentary by readers from around the world. I agree with your assessment. I guess it is easy to explain it to other foreigners now by simply referring them to your reply. Thank you again."

9. Abayomi says:

March 12, 2012 

"Haba!!!! Yoruba that posted here do not understand Yoruba language very well. Yoruba is a tonal language and we love to contract words. “Toyinbo” as described above has nothing to do with a white man, green man or blue man. Rather, Toyinbo is a contraction of ” to yin bo ni ete” where “ni” and “li” are interchangeable i.e “ni” becomes “li” as in Ifatoyinbolete, Oguntoyinbolete, Shangotoyinbolete, Odetoyinbolete, Olatoyinbolete, Adetoyinbolete, Omotoyinbolete, et al

Ifatoyinbo means IFA (GOD of Wisdom, the wisdom energy of the Great Spirit, Olodumare) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Oguntoyinbo means Ogun (Deity of iron/metal/technology/civilization, the creative energy of the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Shangotoyinbo means Shango (Deity of Justice, the retributive energy of the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Odetoyinbo means Ode (Hunter, a prized hunter) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Olatoyinbo means Ola (Wealth/Blessings from the Great Spirit) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Adetoyinbo means Ade (Kingship/Royalty) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Omotoyinbo means Omo (Child, a blessed child) is of high esteem, you ‘ll praise it till your lips come off.

Thus, it means the respective family is appreciative of the circumstances that gave birth to the named person.

10. Abayomi says:

March 12, 2012 
"So why do we call Europeans “oyinbo”? White in Yoruba language is “funfun” or “ala”. However, Funfun or Ala is never used to refer to a person but the pureness of a spirit. In Yoruba, “oyinbo” is used to refer to a person that lacks melanin. In addition, the Mediterranean type like the Lebanese and the Israeli are called “kora”.

The English calls an african “black”, the Germans say “schwarz”, the Spanish and the Portuguese will say “negro”, the Italian says “nero” and the French will say “noir”. They all describe the dark skin complexion (melanin). Is that a derogatory word?

Thus, why are we making a mountain out of a molehill?"

11.  Gbolabo Obasa says:

July 6, 2012 

"In fact one of the “Odus” (meaning Chapters) in Ifa, the Yoruba traditional religion links the African, the yoruba in particular to the Caucasian as children of a mother called “Oyin” not pronunced as “Oyin” meaning honey. That Oyin is the same root word for Oyinbo. Now i don’t think one would want to insult what is concieved to be part of your root."

12. Tunde says:

August 30, 2012 

"To be holy is great. To be holier than thou is nasty. That is how a word, no matter or sacred, takes its meaning from its context. I am fair in complexion and i am often esteemed as oyinbo. The very root of the word is my concern. The word consits of two morphemes: Oyin – bee or honey and ibo – a yellowish sweet sour fruit. Perhaps the juice or bee of ibo is whiter than other bees. Yorubas usually decribe people by what they look like or behave like or speak like. I dare say Oyibos are so called because they are whitish like the juice or bee of ibo."

13. Chantay says:

January 30, 2013 

"Please explain to me this. I am African American, so i am of african descent. I have a friend who is Nigerian, but born in America. Wouldnt that person be considered and Oyinbo also? Why would I be called an Oyinbo and not her when technically we are the same? And I am the same complexion as she is. CHOCOLATE. Even if it is not a word that is “considered” derogatory. To me, I would take it as such, especially considering the fact we are technically the same, but my nigerian friend just so happen to be blessed NOT to be taken through slavery. Why would we be any different? To me, I consider myself african, just uneducated on where my family is from. Not something that is my fault or most african americans fault for that matter. So to be called an Oyinbo, a foriegner, light skinned, white and whatever other reasons to be called it. I would be offended. For an african american who is very passionate about her family history and wanting to know where her family is from. It would be a sensative situation to be called a such word.


SelahSelah says:

March 7, 2013

"I am a Nigerian but I was born and have lived in London for all my life. When I go back home, as I like to call Nigeria, my mother-land, I am called ‘oyinbo’ by the kids, teens, and elderly. It is not in any way a derogatory term, rather it is more of a “look, another ‘foreigner'” statement. Obviously they do not call me oyinbo because of the colour of my skin, rather it is the fact that I do not live in Nigeria, and they can tell by my dress, accent, and mannerisms. I could see where the difficulty was in explaining this to your students, Prof, but any person who proclaims on this page that it is a negative term only need visit Nigeria and see that this is not the case. As stated above, the Europeans have words like ‘negro’ and ‘nero’ to describe so-called Blacks. It is those words, which are directed only at Blacks and, unlike the word ‘oyinbo’ do not include foreigners, which should be under scrutiny. The word ‘oyinbo’ existed before the White man came to Africa and stripped her of her wealth and pride and it shall remain there as long as Nigerians remain in Nigeria."

Obasa Gbolabo says:

February 11, 2014 

"Chantay, please i beg of you to kindly get the right concept of the word and the attitude of the native users of the word before discarding it all together. The Yorubas who coined it use it not to insult but to praise! It is considered a good thing to be fair skinned by a lot of them. Not in terms of the fair person being superior however. It is also not used to mean you are an outcast or an outsider, being a bit different may be. It often suggests that one is sophisticated too. You can only tell anyone who misuses it stop it! It’s just like saying that calling someone “black” is bad! Nothing is wrong with being black except the wrong thinking people who think wrongly of it!"

keletheardentfangirl says:

August 4, 2014 

"You are of African descent, yes. Are you actually African? No. Your’e friend is Nigerian, so therefore, she is not a foreigner. YOU are a foreigner. Therefore, you can be called an oyinbo. That is what you are, that is what you will always be called. That is just how it is. How can you even claim there not to be a difference between you and her? You are seen as oyinbo to Africans, and YOU CANNOT DICTATE WHAT A WHOLE PEOPLE CALL YOU."

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