Inclusion and diversity in Yorùbá education

Diipo Fagunwa 
Elderly Care and Support Services 

 – The Yorùbá are a major tribal group found mostly in South Western Nigeria. This article explores the indigenous education of the Yorùbá (shortened to “Yorùbá education”), and
highlights how such education embodies inclusion and diversity. Yorùbá education is a complex, holistic, cradle-to-grave kind of education imparted by cultural agents. These include the extended family, peer groups, cultural societies, guilds, etc. Education is offered in the shape of integrated knowledge, and is transmitted via myths, folktales, mores, stories, talking drums, chants, eulogies, proverbs, festivals, employment, apprenticeship, etc.

Inclusion and diversity are as old as Creation in the Yorùbá world. Olódùmarè (the Supreme God) created the universe and the deities, and then gave these deities control over specific areas of nature in order to regulate the course and purpose of His Creation. Thus Olódùmarè involved His diverse deities in nature management, and introduced institutionalised inclusion and diversity to the Universe. 

“Yorùbá education was practiced before the white man arrived on the scene.”

According to Yorùbá mythology, Man was created when the divinity known as Ọbàtálá asked Olódùmarè to come and live in the world and Olódùmarè agreed. The divinity then asked for support from other deities. Ọrúnmìlà (the god of wisdom and intelligence) gave him a cat, a snail shell containing sand, a chicken with five toes and some palm fruits. Other divinities contributed gold, which Ọbàtálá made into a chain on which He descended from Heaven. When Ọbàtálá reached the world, he found an expanse of water. The chicken spread sand from the snail shell upon the waters and created land. Ọbàtálá planted palm fruits, which immediately germinated, thus starting agriculture. The cat kept Ọbàtálá company, but Ọbàtálá soon became lonely. He moulded images of himself in the mud. He was thirsty, so he took juice from the palm trees around, but he drank himself into a stupor, and because of his insobriety started moulding images with deformities. Ọbàtálá took all these images, including the ones with deformities, to Olódùmarè to breathe life into them so that they could become living beings and comfort him in his loneliness. Olódùmarè did as Ọbàtálá asked, and human beings came to be, with persons with disabilities forming part of human diversity.

Education with a long tradition

The Yorùbá are of African descent, and form a major tribal group in South Western Nigeria. A considerable number of them can also be found in the Republic of Benin and Togo, while pockets of them live in some West African countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and Gambia. Descendants of the Yorùbá are also found as a Diaspora group in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. The latter are either descendants of people who were sold into slavery or economic migrants. 

Yorùbá education was practiced before the white man arrived on the scene. It was lifelong and continuing. Yorùbá education inducted members of society into its mores, customs, principles and practices. It respected individuality and diversity, and so there were no failures or dropouts. The subject matter was vast, with an all-encompassing curriculum. It was complex and based on the Ọmọlúwàbí ethos, which is education geared towards producing a complete person; a person with a good character, gainfully employed and productively engaged in society. Ọmọlúwàbí is derived from “Ọmọ tí olú ìwà á bí” (a child born with a good character or a child with a solid moral background). 

Yorùbá education involved everyone in the community, and was dictated by community institutions. Educational agents included the family, peer groups, traditional societies and the entire community. Festivals promoted the teaching of moral, cultural and age-old practices. People were initiated into adulthood as appropriate by their peer groups, whilst traditional societies initiated them into the secrets, logic and philosophy of the community. What was taught was relevant to community life and affirmed by society’s needs, traditions and history. This was all communicated in the mother tongue, which was indigenous and understood by everyone. The subjects and skills that were imparted were vast, relevant, diverse and comprehensive. The teachers and resources deployed in teaching were diverse, but local. Hence they were familiar and easy to use. Learning was for everyone. It was needs-tested and inclusive. The teaching methods were rich, embracing observation, participation, practicing, storytelling, recitals, repetition, singing, playing, listening, riddles, proverbs, apprenticeship and work, etc. 

Family first

The Yorùbá family is extended, and values seniority and age. The primary unit is the ẹbí (family). The oldest man is the head of the whole family, and is generally a man of wisdom and discernment when it comes to family traditions. He takes counsel from other senior members of the family, including them in the family administration. The elders are the treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom, and act as custodians of culture and tradition. Seniority factors in the ẹbí are also practised in the lineage, peer groups, traditional societies and chieftaincy matters. 

Yoruba education starts at home with children being introduced to language by their mothers and supported in their learning by various agents such as the family and the entire community. Children are integrated into their communities through plays, songs, lullabies, proverbs, myths and stories, etc., all telling the community’s history and celebrating the community’s values. They learn the rules of the community by participating in community activities. Moonlight stories and riddles are shared by all, and everyone is included and participates irrespective of their abilities. The children in the family eat together from the same bowl. They bond well, learn to be fair-minded, support one another and develop caring skills. The children are inspired and exposed to a diverse tutelage of dedication and good behaviour in their communal lives through everyday experience and examples of honesty, hard work, piety, discipline, generosity and receiving support from others in the community. Everyone is included in the duty of care. The elderly, children, young widows, persons with disabilities and the vulnerable are valued and cared for.

Religion in everyday life

The Yorùbá are religious. The family, community, peer groups, guilds and religious institutions provide religious instruction to reinforce religious teachings. The tenets of the Yorùbá religion include that they live a chaste and morally-upright life. Everything the Yorùbá say includes God and mirrors the diverse deities in their lives. Their language usage is full of religious allusions and references, manifesting their belief in God. The day starts with greetings. A Yorùbá asks “A à jí i ‘re bí?” or “Ṣé à jí daadaa bí?” (“Have we woken up well”)? To which a Yorùbá responds “A dúpẹ” meaning thank you, whilst the thank you is not only to thank you for asking after their wellbeing, but also includes thanks to God for His protection and involvement in their lives. Thus, “A dúpẹ” in Yorùbá is a short form of “A dúpẹ lọwọ Ọlọrun” (“We thank God”), merged with thank you. It is not unusual to hear the Yorùbá swear “Ọlọrun ń gbọ” (“God is listening” or “God is my witness”) or swear the same oath on a family deity such as Ifa, Ọṣun, Ọya, etc., as evidence of honesty or truth. Libations are poured as a mark of respect for the spirits of the ancestors and forebears, and to include them in the day-to-day lives of Yorùbás. Shrines can be found scattered all around the villages and compounds as reminders of the divine presence and of the need for piety, humility, reverence and responsibility to the community and its protectors. 

Yorùbá education respects gender. Traditionally, women were permanent and strong members of their husbands’ families. They exhibited an authority there which they may not express in their biological homes. Indeed “ti obinrin ba pe nile oko tan a daje sibe” (“When a woman spends a long time in her husband’s home, she becomes a witch.”). Thus, she became a very powerful person in her husband’s family. If the wife’s firstborn is a girl, the Yorùbá say that she is ọwọ ẹrọ (easy hand), meaning a peaceful start. Women were not saddled with the hard labour of tilling and hoeing or tough harvesting work on the farm or with the tapping of palm trees. The really heavy-duty work was done by men. Females were however expected to support the men by doing domestic work and by preparing food for them after the day’s hard work. They and the children also carried baskets and other loads home from the farms. 

The Supreme God Olódùmarè is meeting Yorùbá deities to consult and to include the deities in the management of the affairs of the world (Illustration/Collage by Professor O. Famule, Dept. of Visual Arts, University of Wisconsin), © Prof. O. Famule/University of Wisconsin

Yorùbá education provides for the economic future of its beneficiaries. No Yorùbá is unemployed. Children are brought up with a mindset of “ise ni oogun ise” (“Employment is the antidote for poverty.”). They are brought up to be gainfully employed and included in the development of their community. 

Yorùbá education cares for disadvantaged groups. Serfs were respected. Slaves were allowed to marry into their master’s household. In farms and homes, more food is prepared than is needed in order to accommodate the arrival of unexpected guests or travelers. Travelers are free to enter into farmhouses to eat even when the owner is not present. The first thing a Yorùbá does after exchanging courtesies is to offer water and then food to a guest or visitor. 

Ifá is the Yorùbás’ link with the spiritual realm and a documentation of tradition. It is consulted for divination on afflictions, diagnosis and treatment of serious ailments. Ifá is used to counter the forces of evil, whilst Èṣù, whose totem is engraved on the ọpọn Ifá (divination bowl), is the first counsel of Ifá. Ifá priests are trained very diligently and with great discipline because of their inclusive and diverse knowledge as well as their place in religious worship. The priesthood is open to men and women alike, and the training is intensive, thorough and formal. Some writers and scholars believe that African traditional education is essentially non-formal, but the training of Ifá priests gives the lie to this impression.

Bringing it all back

There are social and economic challenges in Nigeria. A new educational paradigm has jettisoned the Ọmọlúwàbí education of the whole man. There is an impasse between Western education and Yorùbá education, leading many Yorùbá to embrace a mixed culture and become confused by this exposure. There is a bondage of religion championed by the two foreign religions of Christianity and Islam. Moonlight stories are gone; proverbs and wise sayings, etc., are rare. The Ọmọlúwàbí ethos that included honesty, modesty, decency, industry and high moral standards is now a farce. Parents no longer bring up their children as Ọmọlúwàbí. The Yorùbá language is the vernacular in many homes, and the main language used is English. Sadly, encouraged by their parents, there are children who have never lived outside the Yorùbás’ territory but cannot speak the language. Traditional kinship-based institutions are subject to political authority, and tra-ditional religions and practices have become subjugated. Traditional societies are seen as the enemies of progress, and their membership is greatly reduced. In places where traditional festivals are celebrated, these no longer inspire the traditional awe and presence, and lack the intensity and commitment of the past. Even traditional rulers are reinventing culture. An Oba called for Monarchs not to be buried according to tradition, but according to their religions. Another referred to traditional religion as idol worship, and blamed the economic problems on the fact of Monarchs participating in them. The irony is that the Yorùbás’ “indigenous faith, labelled as idolatry and rejected by many, has become the cornerstone of a new faith tradition that boasts millions of adherents in the Americas” (Olupona 2012: 19). Indeed, Ifá has predicted in the Ìrẹtẹ Ogúntán corpus that “Óhun a bíni mọ kì í wù wọn, tẹni ẹlẹni ní í bá wọn lára mu (“They never love what is theirs but what belongs to others”).

“Yorùbá education addresses the needs of the community; it is flexible, and inclusive.”

Cultural literacy and cultural policing with religious literacy are needed to shore up the Yorùbá minds and enhance the status of Yorùbá education. This can be achieved through literacy. Cultural policing uses tools which include communication, information, research, investigation, interviewing, correcting, encouraging, visual presence and intelligence pre-di-cated on the Ọmọlúwàbí ethos to monitor the Yorùbá culture in a peaceful and mentoring-based manner. The process of cultural policing would succeed with the cooperation of parents (through home training), schools (through teaching of worthwhile practices) and religion (through teaching of morals). Religious literacy is to expose young Yorùbá people to the diverse religious traditions, not for the purpose of conversion or indoctrination, but to acquaint them with traditions which constitute traditional religious cultural inheritance (ibid).

There are good values in Yorùbá education. Yorùbá education addresses the needs of the community; it is flexible, and inclusive. It accommodates diverse interests and needs by teaching Ọmọlúwàbí values in an inclusive way. Yorùbá education needs to adopt and adapt what is good from other cultures and resist and reject what is not. A rebirth of its inclusive and diverse ethos would help the transference of traditional skills and morals and encourage positive practices.


Boroffka, A. (2006): Psychiatry in Nigeria. A partly annotated Bibliography. Kiel: Brunswiker + Reuter Universitätsbuchhandlung.

Falola, T. (2016): The Yorùbá Factor in World History. Public lecture in celebration of the 7th Anniversary of Splash 105.5 FM and of the 77th Birthday of Chief Muritala Adebayo Akande MFR at Trenchard Hall University of Ibadan, Ibadan, 8 July 2016.

Odugbemi, T. & Ayoola, A. (eds.) (2008): A textbook of Medicinal Plants in Nigeria. Lagos: University of Lagos Press.

Olupona, J. K. (2012): Bonds, Boundaries and Bondage of Faith – Religion in Private and Public Spheres in Nigeria. Nigerian National Merit Award Winners Lecture.

About the author

Diipo Fagunwa is the founder and Chief Executive of Elderly Care and Support Services (ELCASUSE) in Nigeria. He was formerly a lecturer in the Department of Continuing Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.  


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