Certain expressions of human body language are understood by every member of our species. Others exist only within a local culture and like a spoken language you have to learn how to interpret them correctly. Understanding the basics of other cultures’ non-verbal language helps to avoid misunderstandings. Your body reacts, before you can think about it. A good example was told to me by a professor of African linguistics who lectured “Intercultural Communication” at European police academies. In many West African cultures, it is offensive looking into the eyes of a senior person. Rather, African people would lower their head, look down to the floor (or somewhere else to the lower left or right side), while speaking to a person of respect. To a European this behavior gives the impression of “having something to hide”. Avoiding eye contact is related to not telling the truth. Looking around, and not into the other person’s face, additionally gives the impression of being nervous. The African person, trying to be polite, looks like searching for a fast way out of the encounter.
I remember my beginner’s Yorùbá classes. At the end my teacher closed the books, stood up, said good bye, and went out of my studio. Although I knew that Yorùbá people do not shake hands, I was left with a strange feeling. There was something missing: a ritual, shaking hands, looking into the other’s eyes, while saying “see you next week”. Standing up and leaving without a handshake I found rude, and I asked myself for an answer: “Did I say something wrong, that caused him to leave so abruptly?” It took some time till it felt natural and I did not want to shake hands any more after Yorùbá lessons. It is a matter of adopting a culture.
Like many people I came into direct contact with Òrìṣà worship through the traditions of the Cuban diaspora. Yorùbá culture and language survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but was turned into a religious sphere. African traditions often are only performed within a ritual setting in the diaspora, while in the past they were part of the daily life. A language example would the Afro-Cuban word “aleyo” for Yorùbá “àlejò“. This originally means “outsider, visitor”. In Cuba it is used in the sense of “a person not (yet) initiated into Òrìṣà”. Cubans speak Spanish and the remains of Yorùbá language are only used in ritual settings. The “outsider” became “someone not initiated”. The same process can be applied to body gestures. I stumbled across a few of them traveling to Cuba and Nigeria. It was funny when I saw my Christian Yorùbá teacher snapping his fingers the first time to ward off evil, a gesture I thought that was directly related to an esoteric Òrìṣà ritual. Instead, as I found out, it is used frequently. Here are a few results of a small investigation.
Yorùbá language and its idiomatic expressions refer to many parts of the body. “Surprise” is called “ìyanu”, an “open mouth”, while anger resides in the belly (inú) and is called “ìbínú”. Cooling down is expressed by the gesture of “f’ọwọ́ wọ̀’nú”, putting one hand (“ọwọ́”) on the chest and “letting it fall” (“wọ̀”) downwards to the belly. In the same direction points the verb “farabalẹ̀”, literally “put the body touch the ground” it means “to calm down, to be patient”. A double faced person in Yorùbá is a “a person with two mouths”, “ẹlẹ́nu méjì”, being burdened by something literally means “yín lọ́rùn”, having the weight rest on the neck (as loads are carried on the head). Interesting, that “ó yínmú sí mi” in the dictionary is translated as “he curled his lips in disbelief of my statement”. In Yorùbá “imú” means “nose” – curling lips are the European version of this Yorùbá gesture done with the nose! Abraham’s dictionary here offers a translation of a gesture, not a literal one. Yorùbá proverbs are full of expressive, bodily images. Watch one of the low-quality Nollywood telenovelas on Youtube to get an idea of the gesture-rich form of language. In a Yorùbá city you quickly feel like watching a theatrical performance, while people are just negotiating the price of some vegetables or exchanging the latest gossip. Nigerian street life is highly dramatic in terms of gestures (and in many other terms, too).
Most of these gestures have more than one exact meaning and its variations can be used in different situations. Your fists, raised above the head, could help you to express the joy of just winning the Ibadan marathon. On the other hand, if someone raises his fists towards you, and it is the area boy you did not want to give 1000 Naira just for driving by with your car, violence is threatening you. But the same gesture, applied in a Yorùbá traditional setting, can be used peacefully to hail the Kábíyèsí, the king, on his way from the palace to a festival. In this article, just the traditional Yorùbá meanings are discussed, that are sometimes different from what an òyìnbó, a foreigner, is expecting.
I would like to mention important sources for this blogpost (detailed list below). First one is the article of Augustine Agwuele, “A repertoire of Yoruba hand and face gestures”. This is a very recommended read for all the people who want to get into the details of gestures. I learned a lot of amazing details in personal communication with Baba Nathan Àìkúlọlá Lugo - through participating in his regular Yorùbá spirituality online Meet-up group - and thank you to Yorùbá linguist Victor Manfredi for recommending me further articles and commenting on my thoughts! Thank you also to Wasiu Oyeneyin, olùkọ́ mi èdè Yorùbá.
Yorùbá people appreciate traditional greetings, although most of them will offer you to shake hands, what shows their respect towards the customs of òyìnbó. Kneeling down (women) or prostrating (men) is considered the basic form of greeting. For people educated in the West this “lowering of yourself” gesture is kind of rare and feels very strange at the beginning. After a few times it gets normal and the modern, shortened versions make it very easy to follow the Yorùbá etiquette everywhere. Nevertheless, if you really want to show your deep respect to someone, you certainly have to get down on the floor.
ÌDỌ̀BÁLẸ̀ (PROSTRATION, FOR MEN)
Yorùbá men prostrate to greet a senior member of the society. In the most expressive form this means to lie down completely, with the chest touching the floor. Only the head remains raised up in the air, the face looks towards the person you are greeting. Both hands are formed into one fist (see the “oṣùbà” gesture below) and held directly under the chin. The elbows are tucked under the body and not stretched out to the sides. As one can remain in this position for the following communication you should make yourself feel comfortable here. Just for a short moment, to lower yourself even more, one can stretch out the arms close to the body and put the head and the face down to the floor. This is often seen among Olórìṣà in the Diaspora, in Yorùbáland it is performed only if the reason for the encounter is severe. It is very common not to lie down completely, so that weight still rests on the bent or the stretched arms, enabling the man to keep his upper torso and the head in an almost upward position. Today this can even be shortened, depending on the social setting. Men can “dọ̀bálẹ̀” into a kind of push-up position, where the body doesn’t touch the floor at all, so just the hands and feet get dirty. Instead of prostrating they can bow down their upper body and touch the floor with the right hand, or at least stretch the right hand in the direction of the floor, while the left arm is usually bent and held at the back. The minimum variant, e.g. among friends or close colleagues, is to bow down a little bit and lower the head, called “tẹrígbà”, in the dictionary translated with “to lower the head (to receive a blessing)”.
The complete prostration is not just done in front of a king. It is the usual respectful greeting by men to e-v-e-r-y senior member of the society. A well-educated Yorùbá boy will do this to his parents in the morning! Depending on the situation and the communication you seek, you either quickly greet and stand up again, or at occasions like weddings or receptions at the palace you might remain in this position until the other person tells you “Dìde!” (Stand up!) or touches your shoulder or head as a sign that your greeting is met with kindness.
I remember a story from a Yorùbá friend living in Germany. She took her four-year old son Akin to the office. Akin was playing in another room, when she suddenly heard people crying for the ambulance. Her baby son was lying on the floor and did not move, her colleagues cried for help, as “he suddenly blacked out.” What happened? The company’s boss was walking through the room, and Akin, a well-educated Yorùbá boy, immediately prostrated. Unfortunately, the boss did not recognize him or the tradition of prostrating, but left the boy in his ìdọ̀bálẹ̀ position, how he was found later. Akin politely waited to be released from his first intercultural “wàhálà” (problem)…
ÌKÚNLẸ̀ (KNEELING, FOR WOMEN)
Yorùbá women kneel down on both knees to greet a respected person. Like the half-way prostration, this can be reduced to bending the knees slightly or into a genuflection, kneeling down with one knee only, sometimes even without having this knee touching the floor directly. Kneeling down in this sense is always known as a female gesture in Yorùbáland.
Òrìṣà figures in wooden statues, even the ones for male Òrìṣà like Ṣàngó or Èṣù, are often carved in this sacred position. It is related to the power of women, abundance, reproduction and receiving. This is (or was) a posture to give birth among the Yorùbá women. “Ìkúnlẹ̀ abiyamọ” or “Ìkúnlẹ̀ aboyún” means “giving birth to a baby by a pregnant mother” (Awoyale dictionary). Susanne Wenger writes about this position, when she describes how Timọyìn, violating a taboo, killed an elephant giving birth: “[…] since ‘abiyamọ’, the female in labour (also shortly before or shortly after), whether human or animal, is the holy-of-holies.” A proverb tells us that “Ọjọ́ ìkúnlẹ̀ bí ìgbà tí Orò n lọ̀run ni lára gbogbo abiyamọ” (The day of delivery is to a pregnant mother like the day the Òrìṣà Orò is returning to heaven).
Here I remember the story a British gentleman working in Lagos told me. He complained about his Nigerian boss, he was of advanced age but still running the international company. He was “such a bully, that he made his daughter kneel down every time they met.” He did not know that this was the usual way of showing respect towards the father. He thought it was an overly submissive gesture. Don’t forget, it is another culture! Kneeling down has different meanings in different settings.
ÌYÍKÁ (SWITCHING PROSTRATION, FOR WOMEN)
This is a very special prostration that is combined with a movement from one side of the body to the other. It is known as a female gesture, but that does not mean that it is never performed by men (read below about the gender aspects in greeting). The usual daily greeting performed by a woman is the “ìkúnlẹ̀”, the “ìyíká” is something considered very special. In the “ìyíká” one sits down with the left hip touching the floor, legs are bent, torso moves forward and its weight rests on the stretched arm. The arm is then bent until the forearm completely rests on the floor and carries the weight. It feels like going to lie down on one side of the body. Then, shifting the weight equally to both arms and knees again, one turns her (his) body over to the other side, “láti ọ̀tún sí òsì” (from right to left). An improvised saying for greeting a king in this manner could be something like “Mo yíká ọ̀tún, mo yíká òsì, ki adé pẹ́ l’órí, ki bàtà pẹ́ l’ẹ́sẹ̀, ki ìrùkẹ̀rẹ̀ pẹ́ l’ọ́wọ́, ki àṣe pẹ́ l’ẹ́nu, kábíyèsí, aláṣẹ èkejì òrìṣà.” (“I turn to the right, I turn to the left, may the crown last on the head, the shoes on the feet, the irukere in the hand, the command in the mouth, hail the king, second in command to the Òrìṣà”).
THE GENDER ISSUE
There are exceptions in these greetings. Crossing the borders, men doing the ìkúnlẹ̀ and the ìyíká, women doing the idọ̀bálẹ̀, is possible. In Yorùbá society this is a sign of utmost respect. As Baba Nathan Lugo explains: “In West African Òrìṣà tradition, for the most part, when a person wants to show extra respect to one of his or her seniors in Òrìṣà or to the Òrìṣà itself, they may adopt the greeting of the opposite gender. This demonstrates that the person is going beyond ordinary respect. They may even combine the prostration of their own gender and then use the prostration of the opposite gender immediately after. With some Òrìṣà, that are male or have some male attributes, women may perform idọ̀bálẹ̀ just as if they were men, including Òrìṣà such as Ṣàngó - as his children are all recognized as being male to him - Logunẹ̀dẹ̀, Ọ̀ṣun, even Ọbàtálá at times.” In the Yorùbá Diaspora, where prostration survived only in the sphere of Òrìṣà worship, this can be seen frequently. Again, all these greetings have different combinations and variations, depending on local traditions, the people involved and according to the ritual or social circumstances.
Unike “ìdọ̀bálẹ̀, ìyíká” and “ìkúnlẹ̀”, the act of “ìforíbalẹ̀”, literally translated “fi-orí-ba-ilẹ̀”, “putting the head touch the ground”, is exclusively connected to the spiritual world and not used to greet other people. This gesture is reserved for the divine. You get down on your knees, place the hands in front of the body on the ground, lower your head, the buttocks go up, and the forehead touches the ground. It is done in front of Òrìṣà, when you enter a shrine or visit a friend’s or Babaláwo’s house. The gesture can be used in rituals, or typically it is performed by Muslim Yorùbá in their prayers. To greet Òrìṣà, men can also combine it with the idọ̀bálẹ̀, the ìkúnlẹ̀ is involved anyhow. Be aware that this greeting is not done to all of the Òrìṣà, usually it is done for those who live inside the house.
ÌKÀNSẸ̀ (TAPPING WITH ONE FOOT)
The ìkànsẹ̀ is a small ritual greeting gesture that can sometimes be necessary when one enters a shrine or other Òrìṣà grounds. The person stands still and then taps the ground in front of him or her with the the left foot and then puts the feet together. This is repeated three times, and then one can enter. This gesture can be used instead of a full greeting to people in certain occasions.
GREETING GESTURES OF ÒRÌṢÀ SOCIETIES
A variety of complex or simple greeting gestures is used in Òrìṣà societies in Yorùbáland and in the diaspora to identify oneself as an initiate. One example, that is generally known publicly through artworks and often featured in wooden carvings, is the gesture showing two fists, held one above the other (the left on top of the right one) in front of the solar plexus. It is a ritual sign identifying Ogbóni members. This article does not mention further of those greetings, as they are considered esoteric knowledge, known to the people involved and are not performed by outsiders.
Ẹ̀BẸ̀, TỌRỌ, ṢAGBE (PLEADING, EXCUSING, BEGGING)
“Supplication to the gods is an integral aspect of Yorùbá life; these supplications are offered with gestures. When not asking the gods for intervention in their affairs, they may have occasion to beg people for help of forgiveness”, writes Augustine Agwuele in “A repertoire of Yoruba hand and face gestures”. There are three types of gestures of pleading or begging.
RAWỌ́ (RUBBING THE HANDS)
A widespread gesture is the rubbing of the palms of the hands in an up-and-down motion in front of the torso or the face while praying for assistance by the divine forces. It looks like a slower version of the movement when someone is feeling cold and trying to warm up his hands, in Yorùbá “fi ọwọ́ kan ọwọ́ para”. This gesture is used in divination, holding the palm-kernels, the cowries or kola-nuts in the hands, rubbing them, praying and invoking the Òrìṣà, before the moment of casting arrives. In my opinion, but this is speculation, this is the original root of this prayer gesture in Yorùba culture. At least, it is always combined. Rubbing the hands can also be performed in daily life situations, in the moment when one just is about to receive something and expresses “I appreciate, I am thankful”.
TẸ́WỌ́ (SPREADING THE HANDS)
One might clap the hands together (or not) and open them up, arms bent, holding the hands in front of the body, horizontal or a bit more vertical, with the palms facing upwards or a little bit towards the body. This is a pleading gesture that shows the need or want to receive something, literally “into your hands”. With empty and open hands, the person is asking for mercy, almost like a beggar in the street would do it with one hand. This is often used in rituals, e.g. while consulting Ifá, and shows the status of pleading or begging for something, asking for help while being open to receive the answers to come, faithfully. In a variation one hand can also be placed on top of the other, both palms remain facing upwards. A variation with the palms of the hands in a vertical position in front of the face is more related to Islamic traditions.
GBÉ OṢÙBÀ (“COMPRESSED REFERENCE”)
This word consists of the verb “ṣù”, which means “to compress something, to form it into a ball” and “ìbà”, a greeting formula “to accord due respect to someone”. This Yorùbá gesture stands for the biggest amount of devotion, it is “the ultimate expression of regret, acknowledgment and acceptance of guilt. Additional the gesture includes a plea for forgiveness and the offer of a truce” (Augustine Agwuele). Two forms exist, one is simple, the other one more sophisticated.
The simple “oṣùbà” is done by putting the hands together and interlocking the fingers, like forming one big fist out of two hands. This fist is then offered to the offended party. The second form is more complicated. Stretch out your arms in front of your torso and cross the forearms at the wrist joints. Turn your hands downwards and inwards, so that the palms face each other, and interlock the fingers to form a fist. Now bend your elbows and move the fist almost in a 360 degree angle, first downwards, then towards your body, upwards and then at last, pulling the forearms closely together, into the direction of the person you want to address with this gesture. Yes, it hurts. “Jẹ́ èbúrẹ́, awo olùgbẹ́bẹ̀!” (“Eat the ebure leaf, the priest of the one that hears pleas”) can accompany this movement, or a simple “Ẹ jọ̀wọ́, má bínú!” (Please, don’t be upset!). The other person, if he or she is willing to forgive, has to touch the fist with one hand or can hold it shortly within his or her two hands.
GBÀ ÌKÍNI, GBÀ Ẹ̀BẸ̀ (ACCEPT THE GREETING AND PLEADING)
Some typical responses to greetings and pleadings were already mentioned above. Another very beautiful and gentle form exists, which I dedicate this entry. A movement very similar to this answer is used in praying to the “obì” (kola-nuts), before they are cast. It can be seen daily in Yorùbáland, it includes touching one’s chest (the heart) and the head with both hands, that can be folded like in prayer. Imagine the situation of a man prostrating in front of an elderly woman. The woman, maybe a senior Olórìṣà, bows down and touches his head with both her hands, then touches her chest, touches his head again and then her own forehead, while uttering something like: “Mo gbà tọkàntọkàn, mo gbà taratara.” (I accept it with my whole heart, I accept it with my whole physical being). It is a very beautiful way of establishing a connection, from the “orí” (head), the seat of the destiny, or the “ara” (body) of another person to one’s own center, sharing love, life, it is a huge gesture of gratitude. Just one of these gestures can also be performed, touching the head (or the shoulders) of the person prostrating and then touching one’s own head, saying “Orí mi gbà!”, “My head accepts!”. Variations of these gestures can be an answer to a greeting, a pleading, a divination cast etc. Touching the head symbolically with one’s hands, ritual objects or other beings is a central part of Òrìṣà worship and establishes a connection with one’s destiny, seated in the head.
TÀKA (SNAPPING THE FINGERS WITH A SOUND)
This gesture is common in many African cultures and their trans-Atlantic diaspora, different ways to snap the fingers exist (ask your Cuban friends how to snap the fingers while saying “Ño!” – you will be surprised, and I bet you cannot do it in the same manner). Among the Yorùbá people the thumb and the middle finger are used. Generally, it is a symbol for putting stress onto something, or taking away this stress, in a sudden relief. It is like the motion itself: you put stress onto the fingers until suddenly the tension releases into a sound, the invisible power behind it becomes audible, comes into being. The Yorùbá people use it in different situations, some are profane, like when someone is waiting for you. He or she might say “Come on, hurry up!” and snaps his or her fingers a few times, here it is a simple expression of tension and is emphasizing the words. But sometimes snapping the fingers can be more severe!
OṢI DÀNÙN (TO PREVENT MISFORTUNE)
“Mo tàka òṣì dànùn” means “I snap to throw away the poverty”. Therefore, you move one hand in a circle around the occiput of your head and in a forward/downward movement stretch out your arm while the fingers are snapped. Alternatively, both hands can be used at the same time. Then the hands are just passed by the according side of the head, back and forth, the fingers are snapped while stretching out the arms. It feels like taking something off your head. With the sound of the snapping fingers you throw it away. You let it disappear, so that it never comes back again. Sentences like “Ọ́lọ́run má jẹ́!” (God forbids!) or “Ọ́lọ́run má jẹ́ kò ṣẹlẹ̀!” (God might not allow this to happen!) can be uttered with this gesture, done to prevent bad wishes from coming to fruition. This gesture is part of the daily life in Cuba, but it is also used in Yorùbá rituals or divination sessions. Who has ever watched one of the Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo festival documentaries on Youtube and wondered why all the people are suddenly waiving their hands around their heads (see a scene here) - voilà! It is a very important gesture, used in proverbs like “A kì í ríwà oníwà ká fọwọ́ jurí” (“One does not see other people’s behavior and make the hand gesture indicating the warding-off of abomination from one’s head”, what means not to rush to judge other people without knowing their reason.)
ÌKÌLỌ̀ (THREATENING SOMEONE)
One arm is stretched and points in the direction of someone, at the end of the movement the fingers are snapped. Usually it is accompanied by words like “Wàá rí nkan tí màá ṣẹ fún ẹ!” (You will see what will come to pass for you!) or “màá ṣé e fún ẹ” (I will do evil to you!). Whatever happens to the person afterwards, it will be blamed on the one who uttered this gesture and the curse. This is a very serious and aggressive offense that can result in violence or a severe conflict between the parties involved. The usual immediate respond is the “oṣi dànùn” gesture mentioned above to ward off the evil.
ÀṢẸ (EMPHASIZING PRAYERS)
In the Cuban diaspora finger snapping is used to ward off evil in prayers to the Òrìṣà, very much like in the “oṣi dànùn” above. For this, the fingers of the left hand are snapped, while saying “kò sí ikú, kò sí àrùn, etc.” (“there is no death, sickness, etc.”) or “bá ikú n lọ̀, bá àrùn n lọ̀, etc.” (“join the death in going away, the sickness, etc.”). In Yorùbáland this finger-snapping sound can accompany all prayers to the Òrìṣà, also while praying for the good things to come into your life, which hand is used does not matter so much here. The sound generally emphasizes the words of the prayer, it is like putting stress to them, calling them into being, it is very much like saying “Àṣẹ” or shaking a rattle or bell to strengthen the uttered words.
ỌWỌ́ Ọ̀TÚN, ỌWỌ́ ÒSÌ (RIGHT HAND, LEFT HAND)
Let me say some words on the use of the right or the left hand. Ọlanikẹ Ọla Orie mentions in the article “Pointing the Yoruba way” different roles the right and the left hand play in Yorùbá culture. The right hand, “ọwọ́ ọ̀tún”, is used for positive actions like eating, drinking, receiving. The left hand, “ọwọ́ òsì”, is reserved for more passive tasks and in idiomatic expressions is called a “spoiled and pampered” hand, like in “ó bajẹ́ bí ọwọ́ òsì”. Dirty tasks (in the bathroom) should be performed with the left hand, as we know it from Islamic cultures, but also spiritually dangerous tasks. The author describes how ritual objects, found in front of one’s compound and left by enemies overnight, will be removed and get neutralized with the left hand. This also reminds me on the Ogbóni gesture discussed above, where the left fist is placed on top of the right one. The left fist is thought of as the feminine one, that in this cult of mother earth dominates the right side, the masculine one. It is a sign for the sacred matters’ primacy over the physical world. In this sense the Cuban Diaspora finger-snapping with the left hand to ward-off evil makes perfect sense. This is what Babatunde Lawal describes as “Ejìwàpò”, the dialectics of Twoness in Yorùbá Art and Culture, “ọ̀tún” and “òsì” stand for the benevolent (Òrìṣà) and the malevolent (Ajogun) sides of the world. In her recommended book about Yorùbá dance and body attitude author Ọmọ́fọlábọ̀ S.Àjàyí calls it the philosophy of “iwọ̀ntúnwọ̀nsì”, an injunction that everything must be balanced and in moderation, “àti ibi àti ire, wọn jọ̀ nrìn” (both the evil and the good are companions). Many proverbs exist about the left hand’s special roles: “Olòṣì ọmọ ní ńfọwọ́ òsì júwe ilé baba ẹ̀” (It is a worthless child that points the way to his father’s house with his left-hand, meaning one should show proper regard for one’s own patrimony).
ṢE ÌBÚRA (TAKING AN OATH)
“Making a solemn declaration” or “to swear” is called “búra” in Yorùbá language. In its basic. common version the tip of the right index fingers touches the tongue, the bent arm is then raised towards the sky, with the wet finger remaining to point upwards. This gesture makes the oath visible to all the people present, what is the most important part. One can swear to God and say “Ọlọ́run gbọ́!” (God heard it!) or swear by the name of one’s father, or whatever might be helpful in the situation. An Olórìṣà or traditional Yorùbá believer would swear to Ògún, as the deity is known for punishing liars. The perjury would be death, uttering “Ògún ré!” (Ògún, behold!). Instead of the finger, a small piece of iron is used to touch the tongue and/or to bite on. In the colonial literature the traditional Yorùbá oath is often referred to as the “kissing” of a piece of iron. What it means to touch things with the tongue does not have to be explained to the initiated Olórìṣà!
Many proverbs tell us about the importance of these gestures: “A kì í fi ohun sọ́wọ́ búra”, “one does not hide something in one’s hand and yet swear (to something one knows nothing about)” means that it is foolish to tempt fate and that the dishonest person exposes himself or herself to the possibility of discovery. “Bí Ògún ẹní bá dánilójú, à fi gbárí”, “If one is sure of Ògún (’s cult object), one taps one’s head with it”. If one is sure of one’s position, one confidently swears by Ògún (Oyekan Owomoyela: Yoruba proverbs).
FÀ ARA ‘Ẹ L’ÉTÍ (PULLING DOWN THE EARLOBE)
This is the gesture where you pull down one of your own earlobes – and not the one of another person. To the Yorùbá people the word “gbọ́”, “to hear”, means not only to clearly have an audible sensation, but to understand the words intellectually. If someone e.g. did not follow your advice, or repeatedly is facing the results of an unsolved matter, you could turn to him, pull your earlobe down, while saying: “Well, I told you, you did not listen!” The expression “kò l’étí”, literally “he/she has no ears” means “to be disobedient”. Pulling the earlobes down invites the other person to be attentive, focused and listen very carefully to what one is saying. It is a warning. A person talking to you, who pulls his or her ears, expresses his or her wish for you to listen and comprehend. There are many Yorùbá phrases involving the “etí”, the ears, like “fetísílẹ̀”, “pay attention to” or the Cuban expression “fitigbo”, probably from Yorùbá “fetígbọ́”, “put ears to listen”, in the sense of “listen very carefully”, known as a warning in a divination setting.
ÌYÁ ‘Ẹ (YOUR MOTHER)
This is a very offensive gesture, which is equal to the Western gesture of showing the middle finger to someone. All fingers are spread out as wide as possible (“ìyà ìka”) while the hand points into the direction of someone, who clearly sees the palm of the hand. One hand or both hands can be used, while shouting “ìyá ‘ẹ”, in English “your mother”. If you want to be more creative you could also use “baba ‘ẹ” or any other close person. The meaning is equal to “f*#% your mother!” It is also called “waka” among the Yorùbá, borrowed from Hausa language. One could immediately answer with the same gesture while shouting “Títí 'ẹ ni!”, “This is yours!”.
“Gbérè” is an Ẹ̀gbá Yorùbá expression and means “splendid” (Abraham’s dictionary) or “hail, be strong” (Agwuele). It can be uttered while praising a person, what is an important part of Yorùbá culture, read our article "The Art of Oríkì", about traditional praise hymns for Ọ̀ṣun (with mp3). The hands are formed into fists and the arms are stretched upwards above the head. With short movements bending the elbow the fists are moved up and down repeatedly into the direction of the person being praised. One or both hands can be used. “Mo n gbérè fún kábíyèsí” could accompany this, “I am praising the king”.
JẸ ÌKA (EATING THE FINGER)
In Yorùbá culture biting on the index finger is a gesture of sorrow and regret, “àbámọ”. Widespread sayings exist, that refer to this gesture, like “Ṣe kíá kí o má bá fi ìka àbámọ kan ẹnu!”, “Be quick so that you don’t put the finger of regret to the mouth!”. With this gesture one could utter “Ti n bá mọ…”, “Had I known…”. Attentive people around are likely to give comfort to the one biting his or her finger.
ẸNU NÍNÀ (MOUTH POINTING)
Various manual gestures exist in Yorùbá culture to point into a direction. A great article is “Pointing the Yoruba way” by Olanike Ola Orie, which includes dozens of photos. Most of them are performed with the hands, but there’s one eye-catching exception I want to mention here. “Ẹnu nínà” literally means “mouth pointing”, in English it would be called lip pointing and is usually done with closed lips. It looks like the gesture that symbolizes a kiss in the West, both lips protrude and thus “point” into a direction. It can be combined with a head, eye or hand pointing movement, see the next chapter. It is used rather secretly, as it is considered inappropriate in the presence of elders. Mouth pointing can be used to mock someone afterwards, but it can also just indicate a direction.
ṢE YẸ̀YẸ́ (RIDICULING)
This is the Yorùbá public way to express one’s disbelief of a statement or to make fun of somebody, who can feel seriously offended by this complex set of negative gestures. It can be shown directly to another person, face to face, or in a group of people to more than one person. It is a very critical, non-verbal comment on the behavior or statement of another person and is humiliating someone who is present. Central for the “ṣe yẹ̀yẹ́” is the up-and-down movement of the nose, called “imú yíyín”. While or after doing this, the face is usually turned to one side, away from the person being ridiculed, in Yorùbá called “mọ́njú”, “looking away contemptuously”. The eyes can be rolled or in “cut-eye” technique point sideways and downwards into the direction in which the head is turned, as an effective visual “putting-down” of the criticized individual. Before one starts to “yín imú”, a small lip pointing gesture can make it clear to the other people whom you are going to “ṣe yẹ̀yẹ́”.
FÍ MI’LẸ̀! (LEAVE ME OUT OF THIS!)
First, the upper arms are crossed in front of the chest, and then quickly stretched downwards and parted again to both sides. With this gesture, an idea, a plan or an advice becomes symbolically blocked by the crossed arms and then pushed away with force. It is used to determine very strongly a complete rejection of a proposal or a future activity and to express that a certain plan never will work out. This gesture says: no way!
FÍ ÀTẸ́LẸWỌ́ BÁ Ẹ̀ṢẸ́ (THE PALM OF ONE HAND TO THE FIST OF THE OTHER)
This gesture accompanies usually verbal expressions related to a bodily movement done in repetition, it is used mostly with terms like beating, hitting, whipping, knocking or in a vulgar talking about sexual intercourse. The palm of one open hand is hit against the upper part of the other hand formed into a fist (where the thumb is). This gesture is repeated a few times, its duration is directly related to the story being told and the level of intensity of the described situation.
A similar gesture is used in rituals to call upon ancestors and entities such as deities or those associated with leaves. Here it is performed in a single movement, not repeatedly without a break in between. An Olórìsà would touch e.g. the ground with the tip of his fingers and then clap the same hand, held flat, against the fist of the other hand, while saying e.g. “Ilẹ̀ mo pe o! Dá mi l’óhún!” (Earth I call upon you! Answer me!). This is usually also repeated several times, but each single clapping has more emphasis than in profane speech and is “more ritual performance art than a gesture of daily communication” (Victor Manfredi).
PÀTẸ́WỌ́ (CLAPPING THE HANDS)
The hands are clapped together in this gesture at least three times. One hand is held above the other, and for each clap they exchange their position. Alternately the left hand or the right hand is on top of each other. This is used to express a certain kind of astonishment or surprise caused by impudence. An example: A Yorùbá student is present when his teacher explains grammar to another person. The student, though obviously not able to pronounce Yorùbá, dares to correct his teacher, who then might say: “Bí ọmọdé bá l’áṣo bí àgbà kò lè ní àkísà bí àgbà.”, literally “If a child has clothes like an elder, the child does not have the rags like the elder”. This means not to overrate oneself, if one lacks experience and knowledge. In this situation the teacher claps his hands several times to express that he is criticizing this bold behavior of his student.
PÒṢÉ (SUCKING TEETH)
“Òṣé” is translated in Abraham’s dictionary as a “sigh denoting unhappiness”. This sound is made by the tip of the tongue on the palatine, slightly behind the teeth, when air gets sucked inward “through the teeth”. It can be combined with other gestures, like the ridicule gesture, and can express different feelings, most likely a state of disbelieve, anger, annoyance, impatience or being upset. There's no illustration here, as there's nothing to see, just to hear.
OJÚ ÒÓTỌ́ (FACE OF EARNESTNESS)
Following the arguments of Augustine Agwuele, “òtítọ́” (truth, truthfulness) is something considered “korò” (bitter) and this facial expression is the one most misunderstood between òyìnbó and Yorùbá. Try it out yourself - just make an angry and annoyed face. This is the expression used by Yorùbá people when they want to look earnest, sincere, and stress out that they are currently telling the truth! I have seen this very often, but never was aware of it until I read about it. To me as a European it is strange to combine this facial expression with the situation of telling the truth to somebody, or looking honest and angry at the same time. One could add Yorùbá sentences like “Mo n sọ òtítọ́ fún ẹ!” or a bit more emphasized “Òtítọ́ ní mo n sọ fún ẹ!” (I am telling you the truth!) or “Gbà mi gbọ́!” (Believe me!). Many proverbs tell us about the difficult and bitter situation the truth is facing in the world. “Òtítọ́ dọ́jà ó kùtà; owó lọ́wọ́ là ńra èké“, “Truth arrives at the market but finds no buyer; it is with ready cash, though, that people buy falsehood”. People appreciate falsehood more than truthfulness. The bitter face is the truthful face, being honest does not help you a lot in making friends.
I am a Yorùbá student and I am sure there are some spelling mistakes here and there, sorry for that. Mo n try ò. Who wants to support the work of this blog can do this by getting a Yorùbá T-Shirt - follow this link. Thank you.
Resources and Links:
Augustine Agwuele: A repertoire of Yoruba hand and face gestures. Gesture, 14, 1, p.70-96, 2014.
Olanike Ola Orie: Pointing the Yoruba way, Gesture 9, 1: p. 237-261.
Ọmọ́fọlábọ̀ S.Àjàyí: Yoruba Dance. The Semiotics of Movement and Body Attitude in a Nigerian Culture. Africa World Press, Inc., 1998.
John R.Rickford, Angela E.Rickford: Cut-Eye and Suck-Teeth: African Words and Gestures in New World Guise. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol.89, No.353, pp.294-309.
Chief (Dr) M.A. Fabunmi: Yoruba Idioms. Ọ̀dọ́lé Atọ́baṣe Ifẹ. African Universities Press, Ibadan, 1984 (Reprint).
Oyekan Owomoyela: Yoruba Proverbs. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2005.
R.C. Abraham: Dictionary of Modern Yoruba, University of London Press Ltd., 1958.
Kayode J. Fakinlede: Yoruba. Modern Practical Dictionary. Yoruba-English. English-Yoruba. Hippocrene Books, Inc. New York, 2003.
Susanne Wenger, Gert Chesi: A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland, Perlinger Verlag, 1983.
Babatunde Lawal: Èjìwàpò, The Dialectics of Twoness in Yoruba Art and Culture, African Arts, Spring 2008, p.24ff