Life Lessons and morals: 5 stories from the Yoruba language and culture


The Yoruba are a people who believe in the use of proverbs to spice up language.  A lot of these proverbs and wise words usually have stories behind them. These stories, like Aesop’s fables are designed to teach a lesson in morals and to enable development of good interpersonal relationships. Here are five of my favourite stories, translated to English. The Yoruba approximations of the moral lessons of the stories are listed in brackets.

(1.)

Chief Owonikoko was preparing for a party in his best friend’s house; he had dressed in his finest attire when he discovered he needed an escort. Unfortunately his wife and children were not around, so he called a slave. “Ajani, I am going to my friend’s party and I need an escort, will you come along?”  Ajani replied “I would love to sir, but my fear is that when we get to the party, you would declare my status as a slave and every one will laugh at me” the Chief replied “don’t worry, I promise I won’t call you my slave. I have brought out clothes befitting my son for you, so that you’ll look just like my son, here change into this” so Ajani dressed like a rich man’s son and went with Chief Owonikoko to the party.  There were plenty of people at the party and food and wine flowed freely, but Chief kept his promise and did not tell anyone that Ajani is his slave. As they settled down to eat, Chief Owonikoko could not find Ajani anywhere, so he assumed he was probably mixing with other rich young people at the party. But a few minutes later a puzzled serving maid tapped Chief Owonikoko, “Sir that man you brought, the one you called your son is in the kitchen eating the leftovers stuck to the pounded yam mortar.” Chief Owonikoko laughed heartily then replied, “Qh! You mean Ajani? He is not my son, he is only the slave I brought as my footman, when the disgraced Ajani was brought back in tears, he told the Chief, “sir you made a promise that you would not call me your slave,” Chief replied “I kept my promise, it was your behaviour that showed the world who you are”

MORAL:  some people will always remain pigs no matter how hard you try, don’t bother yourself with them just let them be. (Idan ni yoo pe ara re leru)

(2.)

Jiboye’s   is the first son of a very rich man, and that made him very obnoxious, he treated every one of his father’s slaves with disdain and respected no one.  One day he went to his father and asked, “Dad, how many slaves do we have in this house?” His puzzled father looked at him and replied: “I have got so many slaves that I don’t know how many there are, but what do you need the information for?” Jiboye replied “I think we should count the number of slaves we have, so that everybody will know how much influence you really have.” “but don’t you think that would hurt their feelings? Being counted like goats” his father asked. “Who cares, they are slaves, aren’t they?”  Jiboye countered. “Alright” ,his father said with a sigh “summon all the slaves for a headcount this evening, and it will be done in the presence of all the family members.”

Later that evening, when everybody was seated, the rich man started to call the slaves one by one to introduce themselves. After every slave had introduced him or herself( a process which took some time as the slaves were rather many), the rich man declared:  “ everybody seated, thanks for your patience, by now all my slaves have introduced themselves, but there is a particular slave here whom ,has not introduced himself and whom I will introduce . He pointed at Jiboye “this young man here is the son of a female slave who died at childbirth, when he was born God had not yet blessed my wife with the fruit of the womb, so we adopted him and reared him as one of ours. Jiboye is a slave and not my son at all. All eyes suddenly turned on Jiboye who burst into bitter tears, “in a tearful voice, he cried “but master, how could you do this to me?” his master replied “ remember what I told you, when slaves are counted, their feelings are always hurt.”

MORAL: every human being regardless of stature is a creature that with feelings that can be hurt, avoid saying hurtful words, or doing hurtful things to people simply because you  are better off, every human being deserves his dignity and self esteem.  (Bi a ba ka eru, inu eru a baje)

(3.)

Agbegilere is a woodcarver who lives in a small town, he was unarguably the best wood carver in his town and his expertise with wood was second to none. One particular year, as the annual festival approached, the king of the town commissioned Agbegilere to carve out a seven foot high wooden statue of the town’s founder.  The king offered him a generous fee for his services and an equally generous bonus if he could finish the statue in time for the festival which would come up two weeks from that time. Agbegilere worked tirelessly on the statue, both day and night, sometimes forgoing food and sleep. At a point he collapsed due to exhaustion. When he was revived, he went back to working on the statue. At last after thirteen days of back breaking, physically and mentally exhausting work, he sent word to the king that the job was done; he would be entitled to a bonus, since he completed the job a day before his deadline. The king’s  messengers were already around and were ready to haul the statue away, when Agbegilere suddenly  felt he was not satisfied with the neck of the statue, he set to work on it chiseling out bits and pieces, he surveyed it and still did not feel satisfied, so he chiseled and hammered some more. One of his assistants saw the work he was doing as said “Master, but this work is already perfect,” “no it’s not” Agbegilere fired back sharply, “it must be the most perfect statue ever seen in this town.” He hammered and chiseled some more.  When he stepped back to survey his work, he discovered to his chagrin that he had chiseled the neck of the statue so thin that it could no longer support its large head, and then to his horror and sadness,  the neck broke and the head of the statue fell off. He fainted a second time. When he came back to, he discovered his troubles had only just begun, not only had he let himself and the whole town down, he would collect neither his fee nor his bonus, and he would be flogged publicly for disappointing the king. Agbegilere could only blame himself for his misfortune

MORAL:  nothing can be perfect, everything has its flaws, you can only do the best you can do, and hope it would be good enough (N go gbe rebete, Kikan nii kan)

(4.)

In a little town, the king was looking for a new adviser; he wanted that adviser to be a wise man. Two old men were favourites for the job, both considered very wise men. So the king put them to test. One day during a town meeting, he ordered a cow killed, two of its legs cut and  each man be given one leg. He told them to take it home and bring it back in seven days still as fresh and bloody as it was when it was cut from the cow’s body. The men looked downcast, it was a downright impossible task but there was nothing they could do about it. When the first man got home he thought of what to do, he thought and thought and called on his years of experience but there was nothing he could do, so he hatched a plan he took the meat and buried it in his backyard. The second man however went home and consulted with friends and relatives. “let us have a party, cut up the meat and let us eat it” they suggested. The old man wasn’t entirely convinced with the idea, but he agreed to try it, so they cut the meat up and they had a party. The old man who had buried his meat remained confident that the cool ground where he had buried the meat would preserve it, while the old man who had used his for a party worried at where he would get the meat to present to the king. Early on the morning of the seventh day a reliable trusted friend of the 2nd old man told him “now go to the market, buy the leg of a freshly killed cow with exactly the same dimensions as the meat the king gave you, and take it to the palace, and that was what the old man did. At the palace the king asked the two mean to present their meats. When the first man presented his meat, the air was filled with the stinking smell of rotten, maggot infested meat, but when the second old man presented his, everyone was positively shocked as to how he could keep meat fresh and bloody for seven days. When he told them how he managed it, the king was extremely impressed and promptly declared the old man as his adviser on the spot. This was how the man emerged into wealth and splendor. he gave the king wise counsel for a long time after that.

MORAL: No man is an island, a problem shared is half solved, someone who picks the brains of others will never be short of wisdom. (Afi ogbon ologbon sogbon, kii sina)

(5.)

Sigidi, the clay idol was regarded a very important part of the town of Ayede, he was a god in his own right. However, unlike other clay gods he could talk, everybody deferred to him and no one dared question him, not even the king. He was carried to wherever he wanted to go and saw whatever he wanted to see, people adored him and he enjoyed the best offerings of all the idols in the town. Whatever he asked for became his. One day, while he was been carried along the bank of a river, he saw people swimming and wanted to join in, but his request was turned down. That was Sigidi’s first ever request to be refused, and he was not happy at all. He moped, he complained and he threatened until his request was granted. When he was finally put in the water, he discovered to his dismay that he was much heavier than water and he soon sank to the bottom of the river. Before his carrier could get to him, he had already soaked too much water and had begun to melt.  The young carrier could only watch with dismay as the once honoured and respected clay idol of Ayede turned into mud and was washed away by the river

MORAL:  Learn that no matter how popular and loved and honoured you are there are still limits to what you can do. Know how much you are worth, because going beyond your limits is an invitation to disgrace, because as the bible says: “pride goeth before a fall” (Sigidi n sere ete, o ni ki won gbe lo si odo loo we)

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