2.4b(ii) “Yoruba/Caliphate Society: Proverbs and Praise Poems.” Conference on Tales of Slavery: Narratives of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Enslavement in Africa, University of Toronto, 2009.

Paper presented at Conference on Tales of Slavery: Narratives of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Enslavement in Africa, University of Toronto, 2009. Slightly revised version.

Yoruba/Caliphate Society: Proverbs and Praise Poems

Ann O’Hear

     Should a bush pig act like a domestic pig, it will spoil a town; if a slave is made king, he will decimate the town.

The Oba’s [king’s] slave is never so addressed.

When a slave stays longer in the village he could become a chief.

     When a slave stays longer in the house he abuses the compound.

     This paper takes a brief look at two oral genres, namely, proverbs and praise poems. It also makes mention of similar or related genres, including slogans, other sayings, names, nicknames, and epithets. It aims to provide a few examples of where and how these types of information may be found, and of some of the ways in which they may be of use in providing African voices (though not necessarily direct slave voices) on slavery. Thus, the paper illustrates the use of interviews, local histories, and other sources, including local newspapers, and shows how proverbs, praise poems, and related genres can give us some ideas or insights about, for example, the attitudes of society in general to slavery and slaves, the status of slaves in comparison to freeborn citizens and pawns, the forms of resistance that slaves engaged in, the status and lives of the select group of elite slaves, the continued servitude of former slaves, and attitudes to slavery today. In conclusion, the paper discusses what types of information we might reasonably expect to glean (or not) from these types of sources and makes some suggestions for the future.

The City of Ilorin

     The paper focuses on one location, the city of Ilorin, situated in northern Yorubaland and formerly the center of the southwesternmost emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate. The location is important, as Ilorin is extremely secretive about slavery, and information of any sort, but most especially information providing the slave voice, is very hard to come by.i Thus the researcher is compelled to search for information in a wide variety of sometimes hidden places.

Ilorin began to grow in population in the early nineteenth century, first under Afonja and then under Fulani rule. The first Fulani leader in the city is commonly known as Mallam Alimi, and two of his sons, and their descendants, became emirs in rotatory succession. Although the city was ruled by Fulani emirs, it was populated by a variety of groups, including Hausa and especially Yoruba; the last-mentioned have always provided the overwhelming majority of the city’s people.ii Slave raiding, slave trading, and the use of slaves were all prominent features of nineteenth-century Ilorin.iii Slaves were extensively used in agriculture. In the early colonial period, many of the city’s aristocrats and others settled large numbers of their former slaves and other poor clients permanently in the agricultural hinterland, where they continued to live in conditions of servitude. At the other end of the slave spectrum, elite slaves (that is, influential slaves of the emirs and aristocrats) featured prominently in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of the city, and various families descended from these slaves still live there today.

Proverbs and Other Sayings

The birth of a slave is no different from that of a freeborn.

Nobody cares when a slave dies, but there is much wailing when a freeborn son or daughter dies.

These two proverbs, known both in Ilorin and elsewhere in Yorubaland, reveal some ambivalence in the attitudes of free society toward slaves,iv and suggest that the norms, both Yoruba and Islamic, that were intended to guide the treatment of slaves were not always followed in practice.v There was little ambivalence, however, with regard to the status of slaves in comparison with free persons, even iwofa (pawns). The inarguable difference in status between slave and free is used to drive home the lessons that proverbs wish to teach:

     It is a slave who calls himself a slave, while an iwofa calls himself an iwofa; it is the son of the owner of the land who calls himself king.

[Interpretation:] It is a person’s behaviour that shows who he is.vi

     If we are sent on an errand like a slave, we should deliver the message like a freeborn.

    [Interpretation:] In the execution of a difficult and perhaps degrading assignment, we should use intelligence to make the task as easy as possible.vii

     The proverb “When a slave stays longer in the village he could become a chief” is interpreted as “Whoever tries to endure his suffering, he will one day overcome it.”viii It is concerned, not with the remote possibility of a slave’s actually changing his status, but with the shock value of juxtaposing the status “slave” with that of “chief.” And while “the Oba’s slave is never so addressed,” because such a slave’s influence or military prowess in the service of the king may inspire fear in others, who prudently refrain from mentioning his status, his status is still that of a slave.ix

     The proverb “Should a bush pig act like a domestic pig, it will spoil a town; if a slave is made king, he will decimate the town” is interpreted as meaning “An opportunity given to a worthless person to be treated or behave with decency will be misused”x and suggests that a slave might not only be despised but also feared, as violent resistance to his treatment was always possible. In contrast, “When a slave stays longer in the house he abuses the compound” suggests a possibility of resistance that was open only to an acculturated, probably relatively well-treated slave. The Ilorin informant who provided this proverb explains that when a slave lives for a long time in his owner’s house, he learns the history of the compound, so that in the case of a quarrel, he can abuse the members of the family by “telling the history of their great grandfather,” that is, by telling stories designed to embarrass them by dragging the skeletons out of the family closet.xi It’s worth noting that while these proverbs dealing with resistance reflect the attitudes and fears of free society, and not directly the voices of slaves, they do at least provide evidence of slave agency.

      While the proverb on the resistance of an acculturated slave may be of specifically Ilorin origin, the majority of the others quoted above were found originally in other sources (labeled as generically Yoruba) and then presented to Ilorin informants who identified them as known in Ilorin and provided interpretations of them. It seems, therefore, that they reflect a broader pattern of attitudes to slaves found throughout Yorubaland, and even further afield. Hausa proverbs, for example, collected at the beginning of the twentieth century, reflect much the same attitudes: “A slave and a free man cannot be cooked together”; “A slave is a slave no matter how wealthy he is.”xii

     Other types of sayings may also be useful in reflecting attitudes toward slaves or their descendants. Two examples will be given here. First, in the 1950s, the descendants of slaves and poor clients who had been settled in the agricultural districts around Ilorin finally broke out into open resistance by joining the Ilorin Talaka Parapo, or commoners’ party, against the Northern Peoples Congress, the party of the emirs and aristocrats. As reported in the Daily Service newspaper, they met with fierce opposition from the supporters of the emir:

tragedy struck Arnigari village in Molete District . . . as a gang of armed men from Paku village and Molete invaded the farms of members of the Ilorin Talaka Parapo Action Group Alliance and destroyed their yams and other farm products. The invaders who travelled to the village at noon are believed to be members of the Northern Peoples Congress.

Most of the villagers who arrived . . . to protest to the NA Police alleged that the invaders beat drums and sang war songs on arrival at the village.

     “We were startled and became helpless,” the villagers said.

They alleged that as the invaders continued to uproot their yams, they were heard saying [this quotation is first given in Yoruba, then in English]: We are now self-governing. He who fails to accept the Emir will suffer until he dies. [my emphasis]xiii

     The slogan chanted by the invaders illustrates graphically, and with heavy irony, the attitudes of the ruling class to resistance among the descendants of their slaves, and a firm determination to keep them under control.

      The second example comes from the 1980s. In the city itself, public mention of slave origin has long been frowned upon. A mantra, “These days there are no more slaves,” was repeated over and over again by an informant in the late 1980s during the course of an interview attempting to elicit proverbs about slaves, probably because there were other people within hearing distance. The saying confirms a public sensitivity with regard to slavery that contrasts with the fact that it is perfectly well known, in private, who and where in the city the slave descendants are. This sensitivity is reflected particularly clearly in the denials of former slave status by the families of former elite slaves.xiv

Praise Poems, Names, Nicknames, and Epithets

     The term oriki is used both for the “cognomen or attributive” name given to a child and for the praise poems composed to celebrate the lives of prominent persons, towns, and so forth.xv Here it refers to praise poems. Many Ilorin families perform oriki, even some of those families whose origin is not Yoruba. For example, according to Abdurahman Alabi, in his local history, Adifa Community in Ilorin, women in the family of Daniyalu, which is of royal (Fulani) descent but has not provided candidates for the emirship, perform on important occasions a Fulani dance accompanied by a Yoruba praise song, including the following words: “E ka lo Adifa ni le Daniyalu t’eru ndi omo-oba.” Alabi translates as follows: come to Adifa, Daniyalu’s compound, where the slave becomes a prince. This is in reference, Alabi notes, to the “non-discriminatory” or egalitarian treatment given to both princes and slaves by Daniyalu.xvi The words of this song suggest that further investigation in the Daniyalu family might prove fruitful. Why is the egalitarian treatment of slaves singled out for praise? Is it in any way connected with the fact that the original Daniyalu, unlike two of his brothers, was never able to become an emir rather than a prince? Does it suggest that the Daniyalu family, having been excluded from the succession, was claiming the high moral ground on slavery? Or could it be that some of the slaves of the Daniyalu family became elite slaves, maybe prominent in war?

Praise poems or songs are particularly interesting as sources of information about elite slaves in Ilorin. For example, an oral interview provided me with the first detailed information on a certain Dada, a major military slave of the Balogun Ajikobi (one of the four main military and territorial chiefs).xvii Especially notable is the fact that Dada was not a slave of the emir but a slave of an aristocrat, and therefore a member of a group that has so far been largely neglected in the literature in general, in comparison with the slaves of emirs. Dada had his own praise poem, parts of which, at least, are still remembered today and performed in front of his descendants:

Interviewer: I have heard that there was a slave in Ilorin called Dada . . . , who became a great warrior. Is this true?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Where did he live?

Informant: Ile Omodada in Itamerin area of Ilorin.

Interviewer: Did he serve under one of the major chiefs?

Informant: Yes.

Interviewer: Can you tell me anything about his career, for example, what wars did he fight in? Why is he remembered as a great warrior?

Informant: He fought in the following wars: Orimope, Ogun Offa, Ogun Ile Baruba. He was very brave and had a lot of strength. During the wars, he had this special oriki:

Mo wole; too ba wole oo bale je

[Do not enter into the house; if you do, you will spoil the house]

Mo ku sile, too ba ku sile, o bale je

[Do not die at home; if you do, you will spoil the house]

Drummers today still greet his descendants with the above oriki.xviii

     Unfortunately, the list of wars given by the informant is problematical. It appears to refer to Ilorin’s participation in the Yoruba wars of the later nineteenth century but also to a much earlier conflict with Borgu. This may well be an example of the Ilorin tendency to cluster or conflate events, sometimes widely separated in time, around a particular well-known individual. The oriki itself is somewhat difficult to interpret: it may well reflect a desire to emphasize the ferocity of the warrior; but it may also, possibly, hint at his outsider status.

     The Ajia Ijesha family also remembers an oriki. The first Ajia Ijesha, a slave of the emir, was a warrior and titleholder in Ilorin whose descendants still carry the title and live in Ilorin today. Although the Ajia Ijesha is identified several times as a slave in records from the early colonial period, and there are other indications that he and his descendants carry a slave title, a present-day member of the family denies that the family is of slave ancestry. He does admit that the oriki of the Ajia Ijesha contains the words “Bawa n bako,” although he claims that they mean, not “slave of a guest/stranger” but “one who called himself slave, but was never captured in war.”xix This modern interpretation is consistent with other, similar Ilorin families’ denials of former slave status, but whatever the Ajia Ijesha family’s present-day gloss on the matter, these words from their oriki help to confirm their slave origin.

     The head of the Jimba family, which provided prominent slaves of the emir of Ilorin, also features in at least one oriki,  that of Ibikunle, who was balogun of Ibadan from 1851 to 1864. This oriki appears to refer not to the original Jimba, who according to Samuel Johnson was responsible for plundering Old Oyo, but to the second head of the family, who was also a warrior:

[Ibikunle] assaulted the Ijebu on the right wing of battle;

The Ijebu whose king Adejowon is the Awujale

He assaulted the Ijebu on the left wing of battle;

The Ijebu whose king is the Awujale.

He pleaded innocence and yet assaulted Jimba;

Jimba, that native of Ilorin with a nose so big

you could hardly see his mouth!xx


   This doesn’t give us any substantive information, but the very fact that the second Jimba features in the oriki hints at this warrior’s importance.

    The Jimbas are an interesting family, and one that can’t very well claim nonslave origin, because the first Jimba is mentioned on several occasions by Samuel Johnson in his well-known and widely read History of the Yoruba and is clearly identified by Johnson as one of the emir’s head slaves. An early-twentieth-century Arabic history of Ilorin also identifies Jimba as a slave, as does the 1950s “History of Ilorin” written by the native courts registrar of the time, Mallam Sulu. It is quite possible that Mallam Sulu read Johnson’s account, but he was also the son of the incumbent emir and was himself soon to become Emir Sulu Gambari, so he would already have been well aware of the Jimba family’s status.xxi A modern representative of the Jimba family, lawyer Safi Jimba, has written his own Short History of Ilorin. In this book, he tiptoes very gently around the slavery issue. Although he makes extensive use of Johnson, he doesn’t quote the passages in which Johnson calls the first Jimba a slave. Indeed, he hardly refers to slaves at all throughout his book. The only possible hint that Safi Jimba doesn’t erase is contained in his dedication of the book to his grandfather, “Ilari Ogun.” This epithet may well be taken from an oriki, and it may suggest a comparison with the ilari slave officials of Old Oyo.xxii

    Another epithet or name given to an elite slave may also have been taken from an oriki. This is the name “Ogunkojole,” given to a slave also called Alihu, who was a key figure, described  as “perhaps the most powerful man in the kingdom,” exercising “very great influence with” Emir Moma” and “being treated with great respect wherever he went,” despite his being “the king’s slave.” He threatened to behead the powerful Balogun Gambari Adamu. “Ogunkojole” is translated as “War does not resemble home.”xxiii Again, this is hard to interpret, and may intend little more than to highlight the individual’s role as a warrior; but it may also hint at an origin outside Ilorin, to which the individual may have been brought as a slave. Unfortunately for Alihu, his power and influence did not last, and he and his master were forced to commit suicide together in 1895 by blowing themselves up in the palace powder magazine.xxiv

     The name “Na Samu” is identified by Jan Hogendorn as  a “joke” name for a slave, meaning “I got [him].”xxv In the mid-nineteenth century, an elite slave of the same name (variously given as Nasama, Nasamu, Nasamo), assistant to the slave official known as the Sarkin Dongari, was identified as the Ilorin executioner. Another Nasamu was an elite slave of the Basambo, an Ilorin titleholder.xxvi All this makes it very likely that yet another Nasamu, a major Ilorin warrior singled out for attention by Samuel Johnson, was also a slave. While the Ilorin army was besieging Offa,

     The Ilorin horsemen were in the habit of kidnapping the caravans between Ofa and Erin bringing in provisions. On this occasion Enimowu [“leader of the expedition” and son-in-law of Basorun Ogunmola] attacked the kidnappers, and in a short time put them to flight, and pursued them rather too far. One notable Ilorin horseman, Nasamu by name, but surnamed “Gata-ikoko” (i.e., a devouring wolf, from his great fondness for meat) in the chase easily out-distanced his pursuers, and with a few choice horsemen he made a wide detour and re-appeared at the rear of their pursuers! . . . The pursued had now become the pursuers. Great was the havoc wrought by the Ilorins with their spears on the panic-stricken pursuers now taken in the rear.xxvii

    After the end of the siege of Offa, while the Ilorin army was harassing the Ibadan army at Ikirun,

A small town behind Ilobu . . . was surprised and taken by the Ilorins. When the news reached Akintola at Ilobu he quickly marched out, gave chase, and intercepted them as they were returning with captives and booty. It was on this occasion that a single combat was fought between the champion lancers of the two armies which recalled similar warfare of ancient times. The two famous horsemen of both armies here met for the first time. Nasamu, nick-named “Gata-Ikoko” of whom we have heard . . .  the most famous of the Ilorin horsemen on his famous war steed named from its colour “Arasi,” here met with Latunji. . . . Both of them had heard of each other’s fame and exploits on various battlefields, and had been longing to meet each other in a trial of valour. They now accosted each other, “Is that you?” “Is that you?” and then the single combat began according to their accepted rules, with spear on either side, and the hosts on both sides stood holding their breath, and watching these two chiefs of strength. The combat lasted for some time, which shows they were equally matched; but by a skilful turn Nasamu with his spear knocked Latunji’s spear off his hand, and then went about to throw him off his horse and spear him on the ground, when Latunji hastily whipped out his revolver from his side and wounded Nasamu in the right hand, causing his spear to fall off his hand. With the left Nasamu gathered up his reins, put spurs to his horse and escaped: the Ilorins with one accord gave way and were hotly pursued and badly beaten, all their captives and booty being recovered.xxviii

     Given the prominent slaves who bore the name Nasamu, it seems that some “joke” slave names remained in place to remind even elite slaves that they were still slaves. In some places, Hunwick notes, slaves were given Arabic names which were often “redolent of happiness, good fortune and favour from God.”xxix It seems that some similar process was at work in Ilorin, where the children of slaves might be called Nagode (“I give thanks”) or Alheri (translated as mo ri ore, “I have seen good”).xxx However, the good fortune was that of the owner, and the children of slaves, however acculturated, were still to be reminded of their origins.

     One final, rather quirky, example of the importance of names and their connection with slave status in Ilorin, as elsewhere, comes again from Samuel Johnson. After Governor Carter of Lagos had arranged a settlement of the Ilorin/Ibadan war in 1893, and Ilorin had broken this agreement, a British officer was sent to the city: Captain Bower had to go to Ilorin to remonstrate with the Emir. . . . The Ilorin chiefs took great exception to the manner Captain Bower was addressing their King. . . . They called Captain Bower “Bawa” . . .; that in Hausa is the name of a slave. All their great men have each one a Bawa—their principal slave—and hence Captain Bower was taken for Sir Gilbert Carter’s slave!. For a slave to be talking after that manner to, and threatening their King, was intolerable! . . . he was said to have been literally hustled out of Ilorin.xxxi

    It is notable that “an Ilorin informant mentions Bower by name as having been humiliated in the city.”xxxii Possibly the Ilorin chiefs literally thought that Bower was a slave, but more likely they were playing on words in order to humiliate him. Whatever is the case, the lowly status of a slave, even an apparently elite slave, was emphasized.


     This has been a very brief look at proverbs, oriki, and similar oral genres, which are difficult but potentially useful sources and deserve to be more widely consulted in the study of slavery. In conclusion, a few points about their usefulness may be made, and questions asked about the future:

  • Proverbs and slogans may be most useful in slavery studies in revealing attitudes, feelings, perceptions, and fears, providing information on status differences, and  suggesting the differences between treatment and norms. Glosses on proverbs may, however, provide surprisingly specific information, as in the Ilorin informant’s explanation of the way in which the slave who “stays long in the house [may abuse] the compound.”

  • From my very small sample, the fact that numerous proverbs seem to be known in various areas of Yorubaland, and that some similar proverbs exist in Hausaland seems to suggest that they may reflect a regionwide set of attitudes to slavery rather than attitudes specific to any particular place or area. But how far is this true? And for what period? Does the fact that proverbs are common to various areas today merely reflect a more recent spread of oral material since the disappearance of slavery, due to improved transportation and increased migration? Do proverbs collected in areas that were slave reservoirs differ from those found in areas of significant slave ownership?

  • Slave names, like proverbs, may provide information on status; they may also be used to identify individuals in the historical record as slaves. Oriki and epithets that may have been taken from them are also suggestive about status, though they may be difficult to interpret.

  • My own investigations have shown oriki and epithets to be useful in the study of elite slaves in Ilorin. Further study of oriki may well reveal more about elite slaves and their exploits, in Ilorin and elsewhere. Or is Ilorin the only Yoruba city where oriki of elite slaves are found? And if so, what does that tell us about both Ilorin and other Yoruba cities? What similar praise poems and epithets exist outside Yorubaland that may be milked for the study of slavery?

  • A study of oriki outside Ilorin may reveal information about individuals who were enslaved in Ilorin, say, and became prominent on returning to their home areas (such as Offa and Igbomina) or elsewhere. Esu or Esubiyi, for example, was captured by Ilorin forces and held as a slave in Ilorin, until he was ransomed and left the city. Eventually he created a kingdom at Ayede, and received a “praise title”:xxxiii perhaps the oriki of individuals like Esu may provide details of their enslavement, whether in Ilorin or elsewhere.

  • While oral interviews are one of the most important sources of examples of the genres explored here, local histories should also be consulted as often as possible. Local histories have a number of problems, including their indebtedness to various other sources, which they may rarely cite, and the various axes they have to grind, but on occasion they provide an epithet or quotation from an oriki, which may provide new information and serve as a starting point for further investigation.


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