The Yorubas are an ethnic group of West Africa. Worldwide, they number about 45 million, with 35 million in Nigeria. They constitute about 21% of Nigeria's population. Along with the Akan, Hausa/Fulani, and the Igbo, they are one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa. There are also significant Yoruba populations in Benin and Togo.
The Yoruba are of interest, because of the contribution Yoruba slaves made to the culture of the Caribbean and Latin America, in particular of Cuba and Brazil. Nearly all the slaves brought to the Americas came from West Africa, and none had a greater influence on New World culture than the Yoruba. Inside Nigeria, they are one of the three largest and most important ethnic groups. The others are the Hausa/Fulani and the Igbo. The three ethnic groups together constitute more than half of Nigeria's population. For more than a century, the Yoruba were the dominant group among Nigeria's educated elite. Prior to 1937, when Nigeria's first president Nnamdi Azikiwe rose to prominence, they provided political leadership in the development of Nigerian nationalism. Following Nigeria's independence in 1960, they became the minority party when the Igbo and Hausa formed a coalition, but still remained very influential.
During the four centuries of slave trade when their territory was known as the slave coast, untold numbers of Yoruba were carried to the New World where their descendants still preserve Yoruba traditions, including some which many Yorubas in Nigeria have forgotten. Political structure, clans and lineages have been destroyed and the family system has been altered. But language, music, dance, mythology, folklore, cooking and religion have been maintained with some modifications. In several parts of the Caribbean and South America, Yoruba traditional religion has been accommodated to Christianity, with Yoruba deities identified with Catholic saints. In Bahia, Salvador, Belo Horizonte, Recife, Fortaleza, Porto Alegre (Brazil), Matanzas and Havana (Cuba), Yoruba traditional religion still flourishes. In 1859, the Olokun worship took hold in Cuba. In Brazil, the Yorubas are known as Nago, in Cuba they are known as Lucumi and in Sierra Leone they are known as Aku. Though 40% of Yorubas are Christian and 40% Muslim, the traditional religion is still very influential and significant.
In 1839, 300 Yoruba slaves purchased three condemned ships and made their way back to Nigeria. They sent word back asking for missionaries from Sierra Leone, opening the way for the first missionaries in Nigeria, who reached the city of Abeokuta in 1842. Among the early missionaries was Samuel Ajai Crowther, one of the freed Yoruba slaves who compiled the first Yoruba dictionary in 1843, and who later became Bishop of the Niger. He was the first African Bishop of the Church of Missionary Society (Anglican) of England. Today, Yorubas along with the Igbos are the most educated ethnic groups in Africa. Some of the best universities in Nigeria are located in Yoruba land. These include the University of Ibadan (first university in Nigeria), University of Lagos and the iconic Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile Ife. The first television station in Black Africa was built in Yoruba land, as well as the first floodlight stadium.
In terms of urbanization, they are the most urbanized group in Black Africa. Their tradition of urban life gives them a unique place not only among African societies, but among other ethnic groups around the world. Some of the largest and most densely populated cities in Africa are located in Yoruba territory. These include Lagos and Ibadan.
In terms of business and commerce, they are very significant players in Nigeria and West Africa. The country's economic powerhouse, Lagos is located in Yoruba territory. They also predominate in the media and legal professions.
In the political arena, they have played a significant role in the nation's turbulent political history. Most of the important human and civil rights activists like Nobel Literature Prize winner Wole Soyinka and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti are Yorubas. Former military and civilian president Olusegun Obasanjo and late billionaire Moshood Abiola are also Yorubas. The current Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Ade Adefuye is a Yoruba. There is also evidence that Booker Taniafeni Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute is of Yoruba ancestry.
*Dr. Leonard Madu is President of the African Caribbean Institute and African Chamber of Cmmerce in Nashville, Tennessee.