University of Oxford

The Concept of Birth Control among the Yoruba

THE CONCEPT OF BIRTH CONTROL AMONG THE YORUBA

Oladele Caleb Orimoogunje, Ph.D

INTRODUCTION

Africans are endowed with their own developmental theories.  Thus, it can be argued that most of the programmes of the Western world, including birth control are complementary to the existing ones in Africa.  In other words, the programmes of the Western world are not new as will be exemplified below.  This paper focuses on the attitude of the Yoruba towards birth control which we believe is not alien to them.  In consonance with their views, this paper considers the importance of the concept of the birth control at the economic and political levels.  We shall endeavour to explore some of Yoruba traditional prose narratives that reinforces the practice of birth control among the people.

          Birth control is a system, whereby parents are medically advised to beget the precise number of children they can cater for, and as well, have a reasonable space between one child and another.

          The practice of birth control has been existing in the Yoruba society from time immemorial.  A survey of Yoruba traditional prose narratives affirms that the race has various rational contrivances to keep the programme going ever before the advent of the Europeans.  The Europeans only came to add or complement the existing means of controlling birth in the Yoruba society, not that they introduced the policy to the people.  Therefore, we are prompted to look intently into the Yoruba traditional prose narratives such as itan-feyikogbon (folktales), itan Orirun (origin stories), itan yenwo (divination stories), itan/oro a-gbo-rerin-in (in verbal jokes) and itan a-mu-sagbara (incantation stories).  We also take cognizance of the Yoruba traditional proverbs and aphorisms that cut across all the afore-mentioned narratives.

 

THE ILLUSTRATIONS OF BIRTH CONTROL IN YORUBA TRADITIONAL PROSE NARRATIVES

          As earlier discussed, the traditional prose narratives of the Yoruba postulate that the idea of birth control is very autochthonous to the race.  It is not a borrowed culture.

          It is floridly asserted in Ifa Literary Corpus (divination stories) that harem of wives that bring forth excessive children should be discouraged.  Ifa foresees the bleak future facing unchecked procreation.  In Abimbola (1968:28-30), the fundamental cause of this problem is fervently discarded.  Olabimtan (1959-73) also highlights the Yoruba view on birth control with the use of divination story.  In his work entitled Kekere Ekun, Raimi, a renowned diviner, advises Elisabeti to reject the idea of bearing too many children.    Those who are conversant with his work would agree with us that Alabi’s parents are able to give their child a qualitative education because he is the only begotten son they take care of with all their resources.

          Various Yoruba adages depict the traditional society’s positive attitude towards birth control.  Lest we go too far, proverbs and aphorisms are the moral science of the Yoruba society through which they make their positions on certain phenomena known.  Contrary to popular perception, the Yoruba indeed have an idea of this policy as expressed in their proverbs and aphorisms.  A proverb that goes thus “kaka ka begbaa obun, a kuku bikan soso oga” (One successful child is better than thousands of sluggards) makes us aware that the Yoruba believe so much that it is better for parents to beget just a child that would enjoy proper parental care than having  large number of them ruined in poverty.  The poor are usually advised to limit the size of their families, so that it would not become a burden for the society at large.  The poorly trained children undoubtedly constitute nuisance in the community.  They also strongly believe that numerous and unspaced children make life difficult.  Therefore, the Yoruba kick against the idea of bringing forth more children than one can cater for.  In the collection of Ajibola (1947:30), a Yoruba proverb that depicts foolishness in begetting more children than necessary is well elaborated, and it goes thus “Omo beere, osi beere, bi a bimo to po bi erupe, omo to gbon ni se olu omo” (As many as are children so much is poverty, if one has children as many as the sands of the earth, the wise ones among them are the real children).  This proverb projects the positive views of the Yoruba on birth control.  To show that the Yoruba are less interested in many children, they keep on hammering it that Omo ko ni ayole eni omo sin lo bimo meaning that, at the surface level, the mere having of children is not a cause for excess of joy; parents whose offsprings survive them are the ones who really have children.  At the metaphorical level, the proverb endeavours to make the society aware that a large number of children do not really matter.  Rather people should go for few intelligent ones that parents could be proud of.  What they believe in essence is that, parents should take the future of their children into consideration, and not just merely bringing them into the world without a concrete plan for them.  The Yoruba do not support the idea of being a parent if one lacks moral, economic and political (household politics) acumen to bring up the children.  Hence the wise saying “bi a ko ba to iya omo i se, a ki i pe alakara” meaning that there is no sense in being a parent if one is financially handicapped and morally decadent to take good care of his/her children.  This shows that the Yoruba do not attach much importance to procreation of children if it would only bring inconveniences.

          In Itan Feyikogbon (folktales), as it is illustrated in Babalola (1973:66-69), we observe that Tullberg’s Rat begets more than what it can cater for.  Two of the children are given to Tortoise, who in turn gets them killed while Tullberg’s Rat is away.  If Tullberg’s Rat has just one child, it will have been easy for it to take the child along on a journey.  This is didactic.  The tale conveys the message to the society that parents should not have more than what they can cope with.  There are various texts in Itan Feyikogbon that illustrate the bad effect behind negative attitude towards birth control.

          When we go through some excerpts in Itan Orirun (Origin Stories), we become aware of the tragedy the unchecked attitude towards birth control could bring into the society.  Various texts in Itan Orirun are employed to encourage the Yoruba society to embrace this policy.   In a certain Itan Orirun Ibo (theoganic tale), Ayonu who is ostracized and chased out by his brothers at Iregba is presented to us.  There is pandemonium and commotion among them because of their large number.  There falcon refuses to listen to the falconer and this makes them fall apart.   In our collection of data, we come across various texts of itan Orirun that exhibit societal evils caused through large number of children.     

  THE  INDIGENOUS METHODS OF BIRTH CONTROL

Despite the fears of the unknown that encourages the Yoruba to beget many children, they are not ignorant of the problems deriving from the excessive possession of children in one,s household.  We are aware of the fact that the Yoruba do procreate many children, but at the same  time, one must not run away from the fact that certain circumstances compel them to do so (e.g. high infant mortality rate, fear of the unknown and the need for the agricultural factors among the rich)  If an average Yoruba is assured of total immunity from the power that be with regard to the protection of his children, and if he is also assured of the availability of agricultural equipment (those in rural areas), he is ready to go for just what he can take adequate care of.

The local drugs whose efficacy is not in doubt are used.  The most popular among them are the local rings that both men and women can put on their lingers.  It is believed among the Yoruba that no sexual intercourse can result in a pregnancy whenever the ring is put on.  They prefer these rings to any oral drugs, since, they do not cause internal damage as others do.  It is even preferable when compared with condom, in  the sense that, it does not hinder the natural touch that exists between the male and the female during coitus.

The Yoruba frown at any coitus during the breast feeding (though scientifically, not true)  Looking at the metaphorical meaning of this belief, we observe that the fear of unwanted pregnancy makes them kick against such an act that could definitely affect one’s household at the economic level.

Other methods employed in birth control on which time and space do not permit us to expatiate are the oral drugs, the use of incantations and making of incission on the body.

Today, these local methods of birth control are not widely practised, especially in the cities.  Two major reasons are responsible for this.  One, the fear that the use of local drugs may lead to permanent sterility puts many couples off.  Secondly, the minds of many couples in the urban areas have been westernised, they see nothing good in the local methods.  They prefer the government sponsored Western methods to the local medicament.  They also have little or no knowledge of the indigenous methods since they are not promoted by the government at all levels.

We therefore, believe, this paper will prompt the Western trained gynecologists and medical sociologists to research into these local methods of birth control, and make it a point of duty to enlighten both the Government and the Masses.

CONCLUSION

From the fore-going, we discussed the Yoruba way of life, as regards the birth control.  It is observed that the policy is not alien to the race.  We have also discussed the local methods employed in the Yoruba traditional milieu to propagate family planning. In our endeavour, we have also made references to the Yoruba traditional prose narratives in which we extract the views of the Yoruba on the concept of birth control. 

We have also observed that the Yoruba do not fall in line with excessive expenditure on the birth control slogans of the Western World.  They are of the opinion that the fund on the programme is more than enough to cope with the over population which the negative attitude towards birth control may cause in the nearest future.

Birth control is seen as not being a borrowed policy, though there is a slight diference in the practice between the White and Yoruba.  The White advocate the policy for both the poor and rich.  The Yoruba believe that the rich can beget as many children as they can cope with, while the poor should cut their coat according to the available cloth.  There is this ambivalent attitude towards the policy among the Yoruba

Therefore, we abserved that the Yoruba have an idea of Optimal population for the family and the community as a whole.  Apart from their being conversant with birth control prior to the arrival of the White, they are as well aware of the great aignificance of the concept.

             

        REFERENCES

ABIMBOLA , W. (1969) Ohun Ijinle Enu Ifa, apa kini, Glasgow Collins

AJIBOLA, J (1947) Owe Yoruba, London: Oxford University press.

BABA LOLA, A. (1973) Akoj

opo Alo Ijapa, apa kini, Ibadan; Oxford University Press

__________ (1973) Akojopo Alo Ijapa, apa keji, Ibadan: Oxford University Press

OLABIMTAN O. (1969) Kerere Ekun, Lagos: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

ORIMOOGUNJE O. (1994) Research Seminar II entitled:   A Detailed Study of  itan Orirun.  A Genre of Yoruba Traditional  Prose Narative. Department of African Languages and Literatures, University of Lagos    

Follow us