Editor’s Note: This is the eighth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
The Yorùbá land of southwestern Nigeria is naturally forested, and its dwellers are classically close to its ecologies. They are dependent on the environment for their daily survival through the foraging of plants, animals, spirits, trees, rivers, and ghosts. Many plant discoveries, uses, and efficacies were the outcome of Yorùbá hunters’ foraging. Yorùbá philosophies, proverbs, wisdom, and histories are derived from a closeness to nature, and this is reflected in several tall-tales, moonlight stories, and hunters’ game songs known as Ìjálá. Ìjálá express hunters’ great deeds and foraging adventures and are a part of the Yorùbá cultural heritage as aesthetic song-texts crafted by hunters, with a history traceable to ògún, the Yorùbá god of iron. Ìjálá is a genre of chant used to appease ògún for fortune in the forest and chronicled foraging excursions.
I am from a lineage of Yorùbá hunters with in-depth knowledge on the subject of hunting and foraging plants and animals. I was born into a hunter’s family and have been involved with hunting and foraging activities for thirty years before moving to study at a university and becoming a lecturer. My research in ecomusicology works to examine the dynamic aspects of foraging for the Yorùbá people while also examining contemporary conservation issues. From my work with the Yorùbá, as well as archival sources, I have found musical artifacts that reflect how the environment is used through plant foraging. In this post, I want to introduce you to Yorùbá hunters’ forest foraging of plants which is embedded in Ìjálá oral poetry.
Some of the characteristics of Ìjálá oral poetry include epics, chants, tales, storytelling, praise and pronouncements, philosophical sayings, the narratives of past histories, and accounts of life experiences. The Ìjálá chanters use special literary tools to get their messages across such as the personification of inanimate objects, ancestors’ spirits, exaggerations, and hyperbole. Ìjálá chant music is a complete theater of Yorùbá hunters’ bravery and the following reflects the foraging of plants, their uses, and tales of bravery in the forest. Through translation of these musical excerpts, a dialogue between the Yorùbá and the environment is illuminated.
ÌJÁLÁ CHANT ON PLANT FORAGING (ANNUAL SONG COMPETITION BETWEEN TWO HUNTERS) (Instrumental drum ensemble) Hunter 1: Do you know the history of my great? Great!! Grandfathers; Great hunters, and farmers, who survive against the spirits and witches! Brave adventures in the forest, where lions, leopards, and wilds took to their hills; I traveled to the endless forest, where plants whistle; Plants are life, life is planted; plants talks and dance; I have been to the seven hills, and nine mountains in search of plants; Plant dances to the tunes of hunters' drums and songs; The spirits of drums give plant wisdom and efficacies; My friend, how many plants do you know? Hunter 2: Enough! Mo ti jáwé e gbégbé (I plucked plants of forgiveness) I hunted deeply into the forest to profit; I went far into the forbidden forest such as igbó oró, igbó èlúkú; I plucked medicinal plants from the forest; I killed a lion, and elephant and wrapped them with plants; listen! Listen, my friend; Ewé ìsòyè (plant of knowledge) reminds us of the history of plants and animals; Ewé e gbegbe (plant of lifting), commands you to bring my blessings; Ewuro (water leaf) eat it to clean the blood; Osanyin (the Yorùbá god of plant medicine) poured herbal knowledge on me; Oju Ologbo (bead vine) voice and ulcers of the mouth; Eepo Igi (Tree extraction) for mixed drink concussion; Lazy hunter! Where have you been? Hidden in a secret place.
Ki lo tun ku ti yo so What does he have to say? Ki lo tun ku ti yo so What does he have to say? E ni ti a be lo ri to’n jenu wuye One who was beheaded, yet his mouth moves Ki lo tun ku ti yo so What does he have to say? Hunter 1: Mo dawo ko (I have turned into a parrot), I search the forest, the hills, the mountains; I pluck medicinal plants, under the guidance of the gods of healing; Ewe Oju riran (eye-brightness plant) cure the eye diseases of my opponent; Ewe mogbo moyo (baby delivery plant), give us blessings of a newborn baby; Ewe alalupayida (mystery leaves) plant for the destruction of enemies and to turn his mind; Ewe awogba arun (plant for all sicknesses) heals 200 diseases; Ewe Orogbo (bitter kola) cures heart challenges; I hunted deeply into the forbidden forest to profit; Plants heal, spirits heal, and foraging is power.
The chant demonstrates a variety of plant species and their usage, but it is also the means for transmitting that knowledge. Foraging plants is still practiced close to its original form, as the age-old traditions have been handed down from generation to generation. Cultural traditions value the foraging of many plants to heal people of their invalidities such as: water leaf for blood cleansing, bead vine for mouth ulcers, bitter kola for general health, and several plant mixtures for malaria and treating broad health challenges.
At the same time the Yorùbá ecosystem is passing through a rough passage due to the activities of the human Capitalocene. Conservation attempts have been made on a local and governmental level to minimize the usage of plants for purposes like medicine, charm making, ritual ingredients, treating concussions, seeking long life, and general survival. However, in Nigeria a large portion of the population lives in abject poverty, earning on average 2 USD a day. This means that plant foraging is seen as an affordable alternative to contemporary medical treatment, and increased pressures are as a result put on the forest ecosystem. Nigerians are still working to get their basic need of food, clothing, and housing met, so considerations of forest sustainability are a low priority.
Yorùbá hunters’ foraging engagements have been both positive and destructive because of their unrestricted approach to foraging plants, encroachment into nature, and the introduction of loud noises from hunters and their weapons into the peaceful ecosystem. The current situation in southwest Nigeria therefore illustrates a conflict. On one hand there is the traditional, historically situated practices of Yorùbá hunters foraging plants as a type of cultural heritage. Their connection to nature through this practice carries a great deal of significance and is a means to transmit cultural knowledge, as evidenced through the song I have translated here. This foraging practice is, however, presented as negative with respect to ecosystem degradation, and proposed solutions have involved restricting traditional foraging practices in an effort to encourage a more green and sustainable future. I use the ecomusicology example presented here to present the tension between traditional practices and conservation efforts. But I also demonstrate an intangible cultural heritage that, through music, reveals a long-lived, culturally significant historical account of environmental interactions.
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.