8 Integrating Body, Mind, and Spirit Through the Yoruba Concept of Ori
Critical Contributions to a Decolonizing Pedagogy
My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without restrictions of externally imposed definition.
Audre Lorde (1984, 120–21)
Achieving self-integration is a complex challenge for any human being. But this struggle is especially difficult for those of us who are marginalized and oppressed—those of us marked by race or ethnicity, gender, religion, and/or socioeconomic class, whose humanity is persistently questioned or denied in a world dominated by Western values and ideologies. We live in a world bent on having us remain colonized, disintegrated, and disembodied, a world in which we are taught the supremacy of whiteness, of maleness, of heterosexuality, and of the able body, as well as the importance of surrounding our bodies with material symbols of middle-class affluence. And yet we also live in a world that, despite its obsession with the body, paradoxically equates power and privilege with intellectual activity, with the absence of body—a world in which we are taught the deeply entrenched view that the mind is superior to the body. In the passage quoted above, Audre Lorde speaks of the challenge of acknowledging and living the wholeness of our humanity, especially in the face of the colonizing definitions thrust upon us. What she suggests is the possibility of arriving at an embodied consciousness that does not fragment the body, mind, spirit, and soul—an emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual awareness that allows for the integration of all parts of who we are.
The challenge of embracing an embodied wholeness and humanness is rarely engaged within the institutional spaces of Western education, a system founded on the familiar split between mind and body. Especially in the domain of higher education, learning is assumed to take place in the mind, which is understood as the seat of intellect, the source of the human capacity to reason. In this elevation of rational thought processes over other ways of learning and knowing, the spirit (or soul) is, more often than not, silenced, dismissed or ignored, while the body is habitually rendered invisible—as if, in keeping with the Cartesian binary, the mind can exist in separation from matter. This disintegrated framework was imposed on Indigenous peoples in the course of their colonization by European powers, and it continues to dominate Western pedagogical models. In this chapter, I share how I came to discover the decolonizing possibilities of the Yoruba concept of ori (that is, one’s destiny, purpose, or calling). I argue that, as a counterhegemonic concept, ori subverts conventional Cartesian frameworks by encouraging the reconceptualization of the self as the fusion of body, mind, and spirit, an empowering shift of embodied consciousness that can help to counteract the dislocation and oppression prevalent in mainstream teaching and learning.
As an Indigenous Yoruba woman who addresses embodiment from the standpoint of a Yoruba conception of the world, or worldsense, I acknowledge that the discussion here raises questions about what it means to teach and practice Indigenous African concepts and ways of knowing in a North American Indigenous context. More specifically, it raises questions around what it means to be an Indigenous African on land to which one is not Indigenous. While this is not my central focus here, I discuss how a Yoruba worldsense can assist learners in thinking about and working through the relationship between diasporic Africans and the Indigenous peoples of North America. I have grappled with these questions elsewhere (Adefarakan 2015), arguing for more flexible imaginings of Indigeneity, especially where diasporic Africans are concerned, so that the particularities of our history and circumstances can be effectively theorized on our own terms and from the entry point of our own experiences.
The Yoruba Community
Known for their complex divinatory and religious systems, political and religious institutions, urban centres, and ancient art (Warner-Lewis 1997), the Yoruba are one of the most familiar ethnic and linguistic groups in West Africa. Numbering more than 40 million, the Yoruba live primarily in a region known as Ile Yoruba, or Yorubaland, which extends from southwestern Nigeria into the neighbouring countries of Togo and Benin. According to archaeological excavations carried out in the spiritual and political city centres of Ile-Ife and Oyo, the Yoruba urban presence in this region dates as far back as 800 to 1000 CE (Drewal and Pemberton 1989, 13). While the theory of Yoruba-migration has been traced to Egyptian origins by scholars such as Samuel Johnson (1921, 5–7), it is a theory that remains contested. Considerable Yoruba communities also exist as part of the African diaspora, the descendants of Yoruba who were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic. These communities exist principally in Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the southern regions of the United States. In addition, the Oku (or Aku) people of Sierra Leone, whose presence dates to the era following Britain’s formal abolition of the slave trade in 1808, have strong links to the Yoruba. Finally, there are the more recent Yoruba-speaking migrant communities who left Yorubaland in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, in pursuit of the “greener pastures” of global capital worldwide. These communities are most densely represented in the United Kingdom, Europe, and North America. For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus on the Yoruba-speaking migrant communities in North America and, more specifically, Canada.
According to the 2016 census, Canada is home to 9,585 individuals who self-identify as Yoruba (up from 5,340 in 2011), roughly 42 percent of whom (4,055) reside in Ontario. Of the Ontario residents, nearly three-quarters live in the metropolitan Toronto area, 1,105 of them within the City of Toronto itself.1 This is not surprising, given that migrant communities tend to be concentrated in large urban centres, owing to better job prospects and the multicultural appeal of cities with diverse demographics.
Yoruba Cosmology: The Fusion of Matter and Spirit
Yoruba culture reflects a distinctive worldsense, that is, a particular way of mapping out and experiencing the world. As Yoruba feminist scholar Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí (1997, 2–3) explains, in Indigenous contexts, the term worldsense is more appropriate than world view:
The term “worldview,” which is used in the West to sum up the cultural logic of a society, captures the West’s privileging of the visual. It is Eurocentric to use it to describe cultures that may privilege other senses. The term “world-sense” is a more inclusive way of describing the conception of the world by different cultural groups.
Overemphasis on the visual is problematic from a Yoruba standpoint because spirituality and/or spiritual forces are inaccessible to the human eye. The word view also implies a looking outward, on something external to the self, rather than an inner experience. Hence, the term world view does not fully reflect the complexity of Indigenous Yoruba culture and how life is understood from a multisensory position.
Fundamental to a people’s worldsense is cosmology, on which Indigenous knowledge systems are founded. Yoruba cosmology rests on the principles of relatedness, complementarity (Olajubu 2003, 2; ; Soyinka 1976, 121) and interconnectedness, in that Orun (the world of spirit), Aiye (the physical world of living beings), and Ile (the earthworld) are all interdependent: they cannot exist on their own. Orun is inhabited by the Supreme Being, Olodumare, who is also known as Eleda (the Creator) and Olorun (literally, the owner of Orun), and more than four hundred divinities known as oriṣa—many of whom once walked the earth as human beings with mystical powers and were then deified after death. The lives of the oriṣa are continued through the supernatural powers of various forces of nature such as water, wind, fire, thunder and lightning, as well as powers that reside in the earth and in trees. The Yoruba universe is also inhabited by a variety of spirits such as egungun (ancestors), egbe (our mirror selves or spiritual twins), ebora, iwin (supernatural beings with magical powers), and ara orun (beings of the otherworld, including the unborn).
The Yoruba understand human life to be a journey from the world of spirit to the physical world—to the “marketplace” that we call Earth, the place where matter is infused with spirit to create the various life forms that exist in Aiye. The forces of Orun are always influencing and in communion with the people who inhabit Aiye, who will one day die and become one with ile (the soil or earth), which is our last resting place as we move back into the spirit world. The earth, with its connection to the dead, is so sacred to Yoruba people that relatives of recently buried loved ones take small portions of soil from their grave and use it for swearing oaths (Abimbola 1997, 68), a practice that illustrates the interconnection between the living and the dead through the power of the earth. As John Mbiti (1990, 74) reminds us, among African peoples, the spiritual world and the physical world operate in concert: the two “intermingle and dovetail into each other so much that it is not easy, or even necessary, to draw the distinction or separate them.”
Central to Yoruba cosmology is the concept of ori. The Yoruba believe that every human being was born with a destiny or purpose (ori) and was called to Earth to discover and fulfill that purpose. The term ori literally means “head,” that is, the physical human head, which, as Oyeronke Olajubu (2003, 33) explains, “is conceived by the Yoruba as a representation of the inner essence in humans; it symbolizes the individual’s essential nature”—the person’s ori-inu, or “inner head,” as distinct from the physical, or outer, head. Understood in this inner sense, ori is “intractably connected with human destiny”: it is “the essence of human personality which rules, controls and guides the life and activities of the person” (Balogun 2007, 118). Before our birth, while we are still in the realm of spirit, we choose our “head” and, with it, the course of our worldly existence.
Consider the following verses from the Ogunda meji, a collection of oral verses that forms part of the Odu-Ifa—the corpus of texts holding thousands of chapters, commonly referred to as “Odu,” which are sacred to the Ifa system of divination. Ifa texts contain complex and multifaceted teachings within each Odu and are designed to develop the self and facilitate the learning of key lessons that help one remember one’s calling on earth. The Ogunda meji tells the tale of three friends and how they chose their ori (destiny) before journeying to Aiye. The tale demonstrates how ori becomes the common denominator that joins the spiritual realm to the physical world. In the verses below, the lesson involves patience. Two of the friends, Oriseeku and Orileemere, lack patience and are rash in their choice of a “head” (ori). In their haste, when they arrive at the home of the sculptor, Ajala, they choose faulty heads, which results in an unhappy life on earth:
They then took them to Àjàlá’s store-house of heads.
When Orísè̩ékú entered,
He picked a newly made head
Which Àjàlá had not baked at all.
When Orílèémèré also entered,
He picked one very big head,
Not knowing that it was broken.
The two of them put on their clay heads,
And they hurried off
On their way to earth.
. . .
They worked and worked,
But they had no gain.
If they traded with one half-penny,
It led them
To a loss of one and one-half pennies.
Concerned, the two decide to seek advice from Ifà elders who specialize in divination. And so they come to understand the problem:
The wise men told them that
The fault was in the bad heads they had chosen.
In contrast, the third friend, Afuwape, takes the time to select a good ori, rather than letting himself be seduced by the shiny exterior of the many flawed heads in Ajala’s storehouse. And so his destiny is very different:
When Afùwàpé̩ arrived on earth,
He started to trade.
And he made plenty of profit. (Abimbola 1976, 128–29, 132)2
The teaching here lies in the importance of developing one’s interior character and spirit, rather than focusing on physical exteriors. While the passage might seem to endorse an ethic of materialism, if that success is symbolized by monetary gain, this would be a gross misreading of the lesson, one that reflects a Western preoccupation with external circumstances. When these verses are understood within the context of a Yoruba worldsense, the focus shifts inward, with the emphasis falling on character and on understanding the importance of developing a good character as a human being on Earth. Similarly, for the Yoruba, good character, or iwa pele, is regarded as the essence of a beautiful person: beauty is not a matter of physical appearance.
In Yoruba cosmology, spiritual forces are known to be fluid and in constant flux, which makes it possible to alter one’s destiny. Balogun (2007) argues that the Yoruba embrace a “soft” form of determinism, pointing out that, whereas a fatalist “easily resigns himself to fate with respect to future situations, the Yoruba as soft-determinists are hopefully gratified of being able to help future situations” (127). Thus, despite their choice of flawed heads, Oriseeku’s and Orileemere’s fate is not forever sealed: the opportunity always exists to modify a bad destiny so that it becomes a more positive one. This opportunity resides primarily in consulting a babalawo or iyalawo (a spiritual elder who specializes in divination) and seeking his or her guidance in shifting negative or malevolent spiritual energies to ones that are benevolent, empowering, and positive. Such efforts often involve ritual, ceremony, and sacrifice from the individual seeking this spiritual transformation to a more affirming destiny.
In Yoruba cosmology, spirit is eternal and transcendent. A human being is created by the infusion of matter with spirit, and, when the person dies, that individual self moves back into the spiritual field, merging into the universal “self.” The Yoruba understanding of cosmology thus involves a continuous fusion of the physical with the metaphysical, and human life is understood as part of the eternal existence of spirit. In this sense, the Yoruba approach to cosmology is circular, based on a philosophy of continuity, community, reciprocity, and balance among ancestors, the living, and the unborn (John 2003, 12). The individual self is relational, in the African sense that “there is no I without the we”: no entity can exist without the others. All are threads of equal importance that come together to form the whole circle. In essence, there is no beginning or end; there is only a powerful continuity of life through eternal transmutation.
The importance of the circle is evident in Yoruba ritual, as indicated by Bolaji Idowu (1996, 142) in Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief: “The Yoruba worshipper makes a circle of ashes or white chalk; within the circle, which is a symbol of eternity, he pours a libation of cold water, and in the centre he places his kola-nut on cotton wool.” The circle reflects how the individual exists within the context of the larger community of living human beings and how the living self is intertwined with the worlds of the ancestors and the unborn. The circle is, in its continuousness, a symbol of eternity. Said differently, each individual self extends throughout the cosmos rather than simply being restricted to the world of human beings here on earth.
Yoruba Worldsense and Decolonization: The Principle of Connectedness
Embedded in the philosophy of continuity, community, reciprocity and unity is the foundational principle of connection: connection between the self and one’s larger community, between the physical and metaphysical, and between humanity and all other species with which humans share the Earth. This principle of connectedness is especially important where questions of the relationship between diasporic Africans and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island are concerned, because it means understanding that our struggles as peoples colonized by Europeans are connected, despite differences in how colonization has played out historically and continues in the present day, especially in terms of the forced movement of bodies and the impact this has on our lands. We may differ in how we relate to our Indigenous lands and how we struggle for control over those lands, but we are similar in our struggles to decolonize—to achieve liberation, empowerment, and self-determination.
Given that, for the Yoruba, reliance on one another—the foundation of continuity, community, reciprocity, and unity—is essential to survival, I would argue that the principle of connectedness demands that we engage with and support the decolonizing struggles and realities of Indigenous peoples of North America. Doing so signifies our understanding that the liberation of Indigenous peoples in North American is integral to liberation as a whole. As is common in many Indigenous cultures, the Yoruba hold the natural world to be sacred, as is reflected in our belief in ancestors, the oriṣa, and in spirits that are associated with natural phenomena such as mountains, hills, the earth, rivers, lakes, the ocean, trees, and wind (Awolalu 1979, 45). Our connection to these phenomena signifies a connection to land, which has traditionally meant our Indigenous lands in Yorubaland. However, I would argue that another critical element of decolonization involves acknowledgement of the connection to lands in the African diaspora—in this case, Turtle Island, or what is hegemonically known as Canada and the United States. In connecting to these lands ourselves, we recognize that they are the lands of the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, and, through this shared connection, we are encouraged to declare solidarity with the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island as allies. In this declaration, the Yoruba worldsense assists us in understanding that we are all connected and therefore interdependent.
However, the principle of connectedness that stands at the nexus of the Yoruba worldsense is antithetical to the Western construction of the individual as an independent entity, as well as to the prevailing Cartesian dualism according to which our minds are separate from our bodies—a binary that, as we have seen, also effectively denies the existence of spirit. As Devi Mucina illustrates in his chapter in this collection, colonial frameworks have fragmented African subjects as individuals, families, and communities. The ideological hegemony of the Cartesian approach to the self continues the colonial process of our spiritual, emotional, physical, and intellectual fragmentation and dissonance, making the goal of a harmonious, integrated self seem beyond reach.
In her chapter in this volume, Candace Brunette-Debassige similarly discusses the destructive impact of colonization on Indigenous peoples, an experience that fractured the self and taught us to disassociate from our bodies by restricting our breath and suppressing our words. I argue that such moments of disembodiment—moments when our hearts may be racing with thoughts, excitement, and fear—are an inescapable constant in the classroom, where the knowledges, cultures, and contributions of racialized and otherwise minoritized students are neither reflected nor taught, For this reason, and because the formal education system is a primary agent of socialization, Western colonial education and its accompanying Cartesian constructions of the self need to be decentred, deconstructed, and ultimately decolonized.
For my understanding of decolonization, I draw on Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (1999, 39) observation that, for Indigenous peoples, the decolonizing of research methodologies involves deliberately “centering our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes.” In Smith’s conception, decolonization also involves developing “a more critical understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values which inform research practices” (20). Given that theory and research are the foundations of pedagogical practice, I understand her comments to apply to teaching and learning as well.
In this connection, Yoruba understandings of the self offer an important critical challenge to the Cartesian self because they allow for an integrated identity, both individually and collectively—individually in the sense that one’s body, mind, and spirit are integrated and collectively in that one’s integrated being is connected to and anchored in one’s community and cosmology. In other words, decolonization also means becoming conscious of the spiritual dimension of our physical existence, and this requires particular attention in a Euro-dominant world that equates progress and education with the intellect, with written knowledge, and with the visual. It is from within this integrated framework of mind, body, and spirit that I approach Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s (2012) understanding of decolonization as an un-settling. Because “settler sovereignty imposes sexuality, legality, raciality, language, religion and property in specific ways,” they write, “decolonization likewise must be thought through in these particularities,” and not as a metaphor but as a material process that “specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (21). Decolonization in the context of education means decolonization in all areas of life. Much like my insistence that educators understand and teach students as whole beings, decolonization cannot be confined within the walls of the classroom.
Understanding Embodiment from an Indigenous Worldsense
Grounded within a Yoruba worldsense, I have come to understand embodiment in a number of interrelated ways. First, embodiment is the confluence of the body, mind, and spirit, all of which are interdependent, with no one of them greater than the others. As I noted earlier, embodiment implies the integration, within our material human bodies, of multiple forms of consciousness—physical, emotional, intuitive, and spiritual, as well as intellectual. In an oft-quoted comment, Lorde (1984, 38) states: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” Lorde’s emphasis on feeling stands in direct opposition to Cartesian mind-centric (and Platonic sight-centric) ways of knowing, which colonize the subjugated self by variously dismissing, inferiorizing, and absenting the body and spirit. Self-integration thus requires a critical revisiting of the dominant hegemonic meanings assigned to the head-mind-intellect. For one cannot feel without the body; one cannot sense without the spirit; one cannot see without the eyes. All are codependent and interreliant; this is the essence of our humanity.
This leads me to the second way in which I understand embodiment, which is as the self-awareness that comes to us through all our senses. As Oyĕwùmí (1997) suggests in her critique of the term world view, the Yoruba worldsense values the multiple senses of the body, which together give rise to experiences beyond those that we perceive as thoughts or ideas. This sensory-based approach to embodiment can be found in the work of other feminist scholars who ground their work in Indigenous knowledge frameworks. For example, Batacharya (2010, 6) argues that “embodiment is experienced through sentient perceptions that may be discerned in part, and not exclusively, as mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.” For her, embodied learning involves “a deepening of one’s awareness of sentient-social lived experience.”
The notion of embodiment as “sentient-social” lived experience brings me to the third strand in my understanding of embodiment, namely, that our embodiment is at once both material and social. As Batacharya (2010, 6) points out, our awareness of our bodies is not entirely a matter of sentient perceptions: embodiment is also “a socially constructed experience produced through material and discursive effects of ‘social relations of power.’” Here, Batacharya references Dorothy Smith’s (1987, 1990) work, reminding us that our experience of our bodies is influenced by social hierarchies of race and ethnicity, gender, social class, and so on—or by what Lorde (1984) terms “externally imposed definition.” As Batacharya (2010, 6) goes on to observe, the “sentient and social components of embodiment are inextricably co-constituted and ‘intra-acting.’”3 Our socially constructed identities—in my case, as a heterosexual, able-bodied Black woman of Yoruba ethnicity—are constantly being reconfigured and remapped onto our bodies, a process that influences not only our experience of our physical embodiment but also our perceptions and interpretation of the world in which we are embedded (and by which we are, in some sense, created). Our bodies are, in other words, a dynamic product of our material form and our social, spiritual, and cultural world. I might say that we are our bodies, but we are also more.
To build on this last statement, I offer my final insight into embodiment, which draws on the Yoruba understanding of the body as the dwelling place of spirit. As Jacqui Alexander (2005, 297) puts it, “To know the body is to know it as a medium for the Divine. . . . It is to understand spiritual work as a type of body praxis, as a form of embodiment.” More specifically, embodiment means knowing the body as the vehicle to one’s ori. Cynthia Dillard (2006, 42) argues that “as human beings”—that is, as creations of the Creator—“we are meant to continue being creative, as the divine Creator’s force extends through us, manifesting the dreams of the universe through the work that we do.” Embodiment is what enables that work, allowing us to search for and respond to our ori, as it plays out over the course of the journey of human life in what the Yoruba call the “marketplace” of the physical Earth.
The Counterhegemonic Potential of Ori
Indigenous knowledges have been aptly described as “a way to recover from the artificial split between mind and body brought on by the theorizing of the western European Enlightenment, and a challenge to the ways in which Western knowledges have become hegemonic” (Dei, Hall, and Rosenberg 2000, 155). Revealing the split among body, intellect, and spirit as artificial disrupts the colonial framing of the self as fragmented, offering instead a framing that is holistic and integrated. In this way, the dominance of Cartesian understandings of the self is resisted and subverted. It was while I was engaged in research for my dissertation (Adefarakan 2011) that the Yoruba concept of ori emerged as a counterhegemonic entry point for decolonizing conventional pedagogy and ways of knowing that fragment the body and mind, primarily because it encourages the conceptualization of the self as the embodied fusion of body, mind, and spirit. Of the sixteen research participants I interviewed, more than half mentioned ori, prompting me to pay careful attention to this concept.
In my research, I sought to engage in an in-depth exploration of Yoruba lived experiences and understandings of Yoruba cosmology from within the larger context of Euro-dominant culture. My goal was to open up a space where Yoruba ways of knowing could be affirmed, especially in settings that have rendered these knowledges invisible or hopelessly overlaid with racist colonial constructions. I also wanted to centre Indigenous ways of knowing as decolonizing frameworks that respect and honour the communities from which these knowledges come. I thus chose to employ anticolonial and African/Black feminist methodologies. By placing the emphasis on both process and outcome, these methodologies validate the experiences, voices, and agency of colonized and marginalized people, including my research participants.
In the course of the interviews I conducted, I came to recognize that cosmology and worldsense are foundational to the politics of knowing—especially among Indigenous peoples who have been marked by a history of colonialism. Even though my research participants were inclined to bring an internalized Eurocentric world view to bear on their perception of Yoruba knowledges and spirituality, embedded in their understandings and discussion of these topics was resistance. They spoke of the self in a way that was not complicit in a Euro-Christian world view but was noticeably aligned with protest against the very same hegemonic discourses in which my participants were entangled. The themes that emerged—resistance to hegemonic perspectives, Indigenous agency, the self as a fusion of body, mind, and spirit, the need for healing and decolonization—all pointed to the power of ori to support both the discourse and practice of decolonization. As I came to appreciate, ori is not merely a concept or idea but a state of being with which Yoruba consciously engage on a daily basis.
In particular, research participants repeatedly invoked ori as a concept salient to their understanding of themselves as spiritual beings. One research participant, whom I have called Mr. Awoniyi—a father of four who had been living in Canada for more than twenty-five years and who described himself as Nigerian and Canadian—emphasized the multilayered nature of ori. As he pointed out, ori is “not just the physical head”:
It’s like an aura that surrounds you as a being, and it’s not just a one-layer aura: it is in stages, in levels. . . . Now all those are referred to as ori. [But] ori could also mean “crown.” Because it depends on how you see it, how you describe it. Ori is also your destiny, and we believe that it is something you bring with you from Orun.4
As Mr. Awoniyi suggests, our ori envelops us and surrounds us, like an aura, so that we cannot separate ourselves from it. But our ori is not revealed from the beginning, as a whole; rather, it unfolds in stages, over the course of time. Mr. Awoniyi went on to describe the role of ritual in safeguarding a child’s destiny. As he explained, children are born with “a certain type of thing that comes with them,” a distinctive feature with which their destiny is bound up. For example, some children are born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck, in which case they are called “Ojo.” Similarly,
Dada come with locks in their hair, you understand? Dada [are] a group of people that may not be connected physically, but spiritually, unknowing, they are connected, you understand? [. . .] And you don’t cut it—you just leave it. It grows, and all you do is just keep it clean. [. . .] Then it gets to a certain age when you want to really cut the hair. For some of them, if as soon as you see the locks, you cut it, they might react to it—get ill, create fever, or they become feverish. You have to really consult some oracle or do some things, you know, to avert anything happening to that child.
The first time the child’s hair is cut is thus a ritual occasion, designed to ensure that the child’s destiny will not be harmed by this action and that he or she will be welcomed into the community:
We call it saara, which is just a type of sacrifice and calling all little children in your whole area and providing them with lots of goodies, you understand? [. . .] And it will be in the memory of that child forever that, you know what? “The day my hair was cut, oh boy, did I have a very big party!” You understand? But, mind you, it’s not just a big party, because you do not know what ori each of these child[ren] have been called. So now you are appealing, you are giving them gifts that, you know, accept my child into this clan of children, you understand? [. . .] I will say it in a very shrewd or crude way: it’s like buying your way into the community.
Mr. Awoniyi’s discussion of saara reminds us of the centrality of community in Yoruba culture for ushering in important life events such as birth. For the Yoruba, birth is a journey of travel from pure spirit to earthly existence. When we are born, we bring certain aspects of our being with us that not only make us unique but also provide the community with some clues about our destiny. Yoruba often refer to ori to gbe wa, that is, the destiny that a person brought along.
With regard to a child’s ori, one of the most important rituals within Yoruba communities is isomoloruko, or a baby’s naming ceremony. Commonly held on the seventh or eighth day of life, this ceremony introduces the child to the community and the world through the revelation of the child’s name. Before a child is named, the forces of Orun are consulted by elders, with the help of a babalawo or iyalawo (diviner), so as to determine a suitable name, one that reflects the child’s destiny or purpose here on earth. The Yoruba have a saying, Ile la man wo ka to s’omoloruko, meaning that we look at the family history and the events surrounding a child’s birth before we name the child. In this sense, context, history, and especially communication with the forces of the otherworld are interwoven with a Yoruba child’s identity and ori, as formally introduced to the larger community through the isomoloruko ceremony.
Twenty-one-year-old Dele, who was completing an undergraduate degree in the arts and who described himself as both “Yoruba” and “Black,” associated the physical head (ori) with luck, which, like destiny, can be bad or good.5 In this view, one’s destiny (ori) is susceptible to human influence through its embodied representative, the head:
For Yorubas, there’s something about knocking on your head [that] is [a] bad luck kind of thing. Like, if a stranger knocks you on the head or something, it’s bad luck or something—or that it’s not good to get knocked on the head. Or, you know, when parents threaten you when you’re behaving bad, they say, “ma fun e nko” [I’ll give you a knock on the head]. Another thing is, when I was coming to Canada, my grandma, she did something to my head . . . she called some man that did something on my head as if [for] some kind of protection.
Dele’s comments remind us that integral to the Yoruba worldsense is a constant awareness of various spiritual forces that can assist or hinder a person. His understanding of luck also raises interesting questions about the extent to which the ori with which we are born can subsequently be modified through the manipulation of spiritual energies—an issue that his mother, Sade, took up more explicitly.
Sade (a pseudonym) is well known in the African Canadian community as an artist, storyteller, comedian, dancer, and actor. In our interview, she identified herself as Yoruba first, Nigerian second, and Canadian third and was quite vocal about the importance of education, cultural knowledge, and “respect for elders,” which she viewed as essential elements of Yoruba culture that must be passed on to future generations.6 She also discussed ori:
When we talk of destiny, the belief is that before you come into the world, you have chosen whatever you are going to be. That’s our own belief—I don’t know that of the Western world. But then even sometimes in the olden days, they used to go and consult the oracle and find out the type of destiny that that child brought into the world. So they try to guide, to continue with that . . . and if there is anything that is not too good [that] they see, they ask, what can they do in order to help him move a better way, get a better destiny, right? Yeah, they used to do that. So destiny can never be changed, they say, but then, if it’s bad destiny, they still have to appease God or do something in order for that bad destiny to change.
Here, Sade points to a tension between the belief that ori is immutable (“destiny can never be changed”) and efforts to determine a child’s ori so as to eliminate its negative aspects. Implicit in this discussion is the idea that these negative aspects reflect a misalignment of the child with his or her intended destiny, which in turn implies an imbalance or lack of integration among body, mind, and spirit. The isomoloruko, or naming ceremony, is crucial in this regard, as the choice of name helps to ensure the proper alignment with ori. It is important that children be given a name that reflects their ori-inu (the “inner-head,” or essential being) and their guiding spirit, or oriṣa. As a spiritual force, these oriṣa protect the child’s ori-inu, which, in turn, is linked to the child’s name so that every time that name is spoken or brought to mind, the child’s destiny is reconfirmed and continuously charged with ase (dynamic life-force). The spiritual energy embedded in the isomoloruko ceremony vibrates with every breath in which a child’s name is uttered, announcing the child’s ori to the universe.
Dele’s experience offers an example of the power of ori. Entering university, he had originally enrolled in a pre-med program, but he had a keen interest in music and entertainment and was particularly intrigued by Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, which he saw as a means of teaching Yoruba culture to younger generations. So he decided to switch into an arts program—a decision that, rather ironically, displeased his artist-mother, Sade, who encouraged him to return to the pre-med program. I would argue that Dele’s passion for the arts was a calling, and in choosing to forgo a career in medicine, he was answering the call of his ori. From the perspective of Yoruba worldsense, Dele’s naming ceremony, as well as the ritual of protection arranged by his grandmother, allowed Dele to remain aligned, to gravitate toward and explore his interests, despite his mother’s disapproval. While uncertain and probably anxious about his choice, Dele felt a pull toward the arts, and he followed the promptings of his ori.
At first glance, the insights into ori offered by my research participants may not seem relevant to pedagogy. I return to Tuck and Yang’s (2012) argument that decolonization must be material rather than metaphoric—that it cannot be contained within the classroom but “requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life” (21). Indigenous “life” is inextricable from Indigenous worldsense, and the understandings of ori presented above reflect the Indigenous self as the union of body, mind, and spirit. Decolonization means that when this integrated Indigenous self enters the classroom; it is not forced to disintegrate—to leave body and spirit at the door.
Knowing one’s self as an integrated and embodied being is fundamental to finding one’s purpose and to holding onto the knowledge that despite all obstacles—racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and so on—there is a reason for one’s presence on Earth. The challenge for us, both as individuals and as a collective, is to discover, remember, and honour that purpose as we simultaneously navigate the complex terrain of marginalization and oppression. Responding to that challenge requires recognizing that one of the spaces of oppression is the education system and that this space nonetheless holds the possibility of unlearning and relearning in ways that will counter disembodiment, oppression, and amnesia.
As a state of being that is essential to the Yoruba understanding of the self as an integrated, embodied being, ori holds immense pedagogical possibilities for decolonization, especially in the setting of formal education. It is here that Yoruba and other Indigenous knowledges can be ethically and respectfully utilized to engage in multilayered, self-reflexive learning and discussion within the context of Euro-dominant culture. Through this process, the colonial construction of Indigenous knowledges as silent, invisible, and subjugated will be displaced by one in which such knowledges are affirmed not only as legitimate but as inherently valuable.
Pedagogical Implications of the Concept of Ori
My many years as an educator have made me astutely aware that it is not simply young “minds” that teachers shape; rather, it is a whole person, a human being whose material body and immaterial spirit, heart, and soul are also part and parcel of formal schooling, as well as educational experiences more broadly. While ori is a specifically Yoruba concept and way of understanding the self, the lessons and knowledge encapsulated in the idea of ori apply to all human beings and therefore to all students and teachers. Put another way, the Yoruba concept of ori as a state of being can be expanded and adapted to the classroom.
While by no means the only Indigenous system of knowledge that is holistic and integrative, Yoruba ways of knowing and understanding the world can have a transformative impact on formal schooling by encouraging and enabling educators to work with students as whole people, as connected people—that is, as spiritually embodied social beings, not simply academic bodies, whose lives extend beyond the classroom. The classroom then becomes a space in which educators recognize the dangers of replicating Cartesian models of pedagogy that depoliticize, de-emphasize, or simply erase students’ physical bodies, along with the dominant social and political meanings ascribed to them. In other words, with this effacement of bodies comes a denial of the social and political implications of our racialized identities and the hegemonic Eurocentric inequities that shape them, as well as a rejection of the spiritual basis of human existence.
In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks (1994, 16) discusses the Cartesian-informed basis of the Western academy and her realization that she needed to “make a distinction between the practice of being an intellectual/teacher and one’s role as a member of the academic profession”:
It was difficult to maintain fidelity to the idea of the intellectual as someone who sought to be whole—well-grounded in a context where there was little emphasis on spiritual well-being, on care of the soul. Indeed, the objectification of the teacher within bourgeois educational structures seemed to denigrate notions of wholeness and uphold the idea of a mind/body split, one that promotes and supports compartmentalization.
In contrast to narrow Cartesian models of pedagogy, this chapter asks educators to ethically and respectfully consider using Indigenous knowledges to inform their pedagogical practice. Incorporating the Yoruba concept of ori into one’s pedagogical practice, for example, involves shifting to a philosophical, cosmological, and cognitive understanding of the self as integrated whole. It means understanding that ori is not an endpoint but a state of being—that, as human beings, we are here on Earth to answer a call, which requires us to figure out what we came here to do. It also means recognizing that discovering our purpose, our destiny, demands an inner awareness and a willingness to explore new things despite whatever fears may have hindered us in the past—to summon the courage to try something that we’ve always wanted to try or to pursue something in which we already have an interest or to which we are passionately drawn. In other words, the teaching that is embedded in ori respects the requirement of process, which in turn necessitates some form of practice.
As Batacharya (2010, 15) points out, the issue of practicing embodiment in education is not merely important but tends to be neglected, in that “few embodiment scholars speak to practices and pedagogies that counter dichotomous thinking in ways that involve more than just thinking.” Roxana Ng speaks of “embodied learning” or a “pedagogy of embodiment,” a practice in which the means to knowledge construction does not negate the materiality of our being and that allows us to “interrogate how our consciousness is developed and changed” (Ng 2000, 186). It is in this context that I offer an example of how ori can be integrated into teaching, embodiment, and decolonization for Yoruba and non-Yoruba teachers and students alike at either the post-secondary or secondary level.
In encouraging teachers to introduce the concept of ori, I am in no way advocating the cultural appropriation of Yoruba knowledge systems—or any other Indigenous knowledges, which must always be taught ethically and respectfully. To this end, I suggest that non-Yoruba teachers invite a Yoruba elder or someone from the Ifa community to coteach the first three weeks of a unit to provide important background and foundational knowledge about the Yoruba people, and the cosmology and culture. I also strongly recommend that teachers develop lesson plans for at least a four- to six-week unit, with titles such as “Destiny, Purpose, and Calling from an African Worldsense” or “Exploring Destiny from an African Indigenous Perspective.” The goal is to allow students plenty of time to absorb and understand the lessons in the unit as a process and to apply ideas and practice activities in a gradual and unhurried manner. I also suggest that the unit include lessons about the philosophies and the fundamental principles of connectedness and interdependence that underpin Yoruba worldsense. Also recommended is a discussion of the complexities of theorizing embodiment and the decolonization of education while using Indigenous knowledges on land to which one is not Indigenous. Students can be encouraged to think about their own relationship with the Indigenous peoples of North America within the context of their education to date.
More specifically, here are some suggested ways to integrate ori—acknowledged as a concept inextricably enmeshed in the broader Yoruba worldsense—into an embodied and decolonizing pedagogical practice:
- Students are first taught background and contextual knowledge about ori as an Indigenous concept from the Yoruba ethnic group.
- Students are taught the multilayered meaning of ori, with particular stress on the spiritual and embodied components of the concept and on the idea that, in order to understand ori from a Yoruba perspective, they will be exploring what their own calling may be.
- To aid them in experiencing ori as both a process and a state of being, students are encouraged to incorporate some form of embodied practice beyond their cognitive or thinking self as part of their exploration—practices such as dance, drumming, theatre, sculpture, and singing.
- Students are encouraged to research a figure in their community of choice (i.e. a community they identify with in some way) who is (or was) professionally engaged in an embodied practice, whether as a full-time or part-time, profession, they sometimes use (or used) as a vehicle for addressing social justice or equity issues.
- To assist in their exploration of what their ori may be, students are encouraged to try something that they have always wanted to do, or that they feel passionate or curious about.
- Students are asked to keep a journal, in which they record their feelings, thoughts, dreams, fears, and to pay attention to what happens to and around them when they recording these things.
In students’ exploration of their ori, the emphasis is on the process and on becoming alert to information and messages that emerge. In other words, the objective of this approach is to allow students to gain an embodied sense of awareness, creativity, and critical self-reflexivity:
Awareness includes an awareness of the journey toward awakening and/or remembering one’s ori, as well as an awareness (and conscious embrace) of one’s whole self, and especially of the inseparability of the body and spirit from the mind. Awareness also includes an affirmation of Indigenous knowledges as important sources of holistic and embodied knowledge and of one’s self as part of a larger human community in which we are all connected.
Creativity entails the active involvement of one’s body and spirit in creating new ways of knowing that give rise to new knowledges. Creativity means understanding the empowering possibilities of knowing the self through an awareness of one’s material body and creating a grounded consciousness of one’s embodied state of being.
Critical self-reflexivity involves learning how one’s self and one’s ori are both embedded in one’s social location. In other words, it means beginning to explore and understand that rolled into the answer to the question, What did I come here to do? are the social and political identities inscribed on our bodies and variously privileged or minoritized by the ideological constructions of a patriarchal, heteronormative, white, Christian, Euro-centric and deeply capitalist culture.
The Yoruba concept of ori can be a powerful tool in a decolonizing pedagogy, primarily because it offers the potentially transformative teaching that all of our being is important, thereby subverting hegemonic Cartesian-based models of knowing, teaching, and learning. Understanding ori from a Yoruba worldsense allows us to remember and reclaim the integration of matter and spirit that lies at the source of our individual and collective existence. That is, it allows us to know ourselves as embodied spiritual beings, whose minds cannot be divorced from our bodies or from our hearts and souls. From this integrated awareness comes the “fullest concentration of energy” of which Lorde speaks.
Decolonization cannot occur within the classroom: it is a far larger project. However, the success of that project rests on our ability to reconnect with our inner essence, our integrated body-mind-spirit, and let the power of that integration flow through us. As long as we remain fragmented, we remain oppressed. The classroom can, I would argue, be a site of renewal and reinvigoration, a space within which we can experience integration, learn to value our whole selves, and begin to discover what we are being called to do, our purpose—our ori.
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1 Figures for 2016 can be accessed at “Census Profile, 2016 Census,” Statistics Canada, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E (last modified 17 May 2018), by entering “Canada,” “Ontario,” or “Toronto” in the “Place name” search window. For the 2011 figure, see “NHS Profile, 2011, Statistics Canada, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E (last modified 24 May 2018).
2 See also the discussion of this story in Oyĕwùmí (1997, 38–39).
3 On the concept of “intra-acting,” Batacharya cites Karen Barad’s “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” in Material Feminisms, edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman, 120–54 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).
4 All research participants were given pseudonyms. The interview with Mr. Awoniyi took place on 21 April 2007 in Toronto.
5 The interview with Dele was conducted on 11 March 2007 in Toronto.
6 Sade was also interviewed on 11 March 2007 in Toronto.