Verbal arts, explains Karin Barber, emeritus professor of African cultural anthropology at the University of Birmingham, are “any form of words that have been composed in order to attract attention or invite interpretation, and which is intended to be repeatable in some way.” They are, she continues, central to all sorts of social processes, “just as much a part of people’s lives as kinship or economic activities.”
In this Social Science Bites podcast, Barber offers a specific case study of the application of the verbal arts by examining in depth some of the genres common in the Yoruba-speaking areas of Western Africa. Barber said there are more than 30 million people who speak Yoruba, with the largest number in southwestern Nigeria, where much of Barber’s own scholarship has taken place. She describes the study of Yoruba as a large field in academe, with “hundreds and hundreds” of Yoruba scholars building it up.
Barber herself grew up in Yorkshire and did her first degree, in English, at Cambridge University. She next studied social anthropology at University College London and after a stint in Uganda was told that if she really wanted to pursue her examination of African theater she should go to Nigeria. Her Ph.D. – based on 37 months of field work studying oral poetic performance in everyday life in a Yoruba town – came from Nigeria’s University of Ifẹ (now Ọbafẹmi Awolọwọ University). Barber then spent the next seven years as a lecturer in the Department of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Ifẹ, where courses were taught in Yoruba.
Barber’s scholarship has resulted in several notable books and monographs. The 1991 monograph I Could Speak Until Tomorrow: Oriki, Women and the Past in a Yoruba Town won the Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology; 2000’s The Generation of Plays: Yoruba Popular Life in Theatre won the Herskovits Award of the African Studies Association; The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics from 2007 won the Susanne K. Langer Award of the Media Ecology Association; and 2012’s Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel won the Paul Hair Prize of the African Studies Association and the Association for the Preservation and Publication of African Historical Sources.
In this interview, she tells host David Edmonds about two particular genres of Yoruba verbal arts: ese Ifa, or divination poetry, and oríkì, translated as praise poetry. “Divination is how people govern and manage their lives,” she explains, “so this poetry is really central to how people analyze what’s happening to them and take steps to make sure that things work out as they wish.”
Praise poetry, “strings and strings of epithets hailing the subject’s qualities,” meanwhile, “celebrates and commemorates and highlights the essential characteristics of a person or god or a family or town or an animal. Somehow it evokes the inner essence, the inner properties, and activates them, galvanizes them.” This genre, she details, has changed over the years, emphasizing excesses of power and wealth in the 19th century but adding references to educational and civic attainments more recently. “Changing power dynamics are revealed, not necessarily in what the verbal arts specifically say, but in the way they are formed, in the way they are transmitted, who reads them or who listens to them.”
And so verbal arts matter in a social science context. “All verbal arts are produced in an economic and institutional context. You could ask, why did this new genre appear in this context, this particular moment in history. What caused people to devise this way of commenting on society and formulating ides in this particular way? It’s because of the prevailing interplay of social forces.”
For her work, Barber has received a number of high honors, ranging from a Yoruba chieftaincy title – she is the Iyamoye (“mother who has insights”) of Okuku – to appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire earlier this year.
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