Riddles are used among the ... amusement, but also as a means of education and even... B. Ajayi

B. Ajayi
Riddles are used among the Yoruba not only as a form of
amusement, but also as a means of education and even as a serious
test of imaginative powers. This is why Cole-Reuchatl asserts that
riddles "combine recreational and educational features to an
unusual degree." Young people love riddles for the amusement
they provide; adults or old people encourage their use because of
their instructive value. Those two aspects are reflected in the
varied contents of riddles and in their form which is subtly adapted
to the diversity of subjects referred to.
Because of their recreational and educational values,
riddles are socially very significant. Their great variety of contents
and forms and their social importance make riddles a most
interesting and inspiring subject of study. No doubt a number of
scholars have worked on various aspects of Yoruba riddles. For
example, Bascom2 examines the wide range of formal variation to
be found in Yoruba riddles and Babalola3 attempts a classification
of Yoruba riddles bearing in mind the kind of formula employed
in. the text. Olabimtan4 and Yai 5 examine the formal structure of
riddles and the means of arriving at a solution. But in this chapter,
a detailed study of riddles in relation to the education of the
Yoruba child is attempted.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of riddles; the oral
riddle and the non-oral or visual riddle. Alo opamo is an example
of a verbal form of riddles. Alo opamo (riddles) are a variety of
enigma or puzzling questions to be solved by the person to whom
it is addressed. In other words, a riddle is a statement with a hidden
meaning, which is to be discovered after a sharp menial review of
the possibilities. Riddles describe persons or things in metaphor,
the main figure of speech employed in the literary genre. Alo
opamo as a form of entertainment is played throughout the
Yorubaland. Unlike the proverb (owe) which states a fact or
expresses a thought in vivid metaphor, a riddle (alo opamo}
describes a person or a thing in metaphor calculated to exercise the
intellectual skill of those who attempt to solve it. The framing and
solving of riddles thus becomes a trial of wits. There are various
sub-types of riddles. Among them are the paradox riddle,
compound structure riddle, metalingual riddle and puzzle riddle.6
In paradox riddle, an object "A' behaves or functions
contrary to normal expectations. Yoruba paradox riddles are
antithetic to commonsense. Examples of this type of riddles are:
(1) Ko lowo,
Ko lese
o n gbe omo tuntun jo.
(Without arms,
Nor legs,
He can carry a baby.
(2) A pe oku,
Oku je.
A pe alaye,
Ko fohun.
(ewe gbigbe)
(We called the dead man,
He answered.
We called the living man,
He did not answer.
[dead leaf].)
In each case of the above examples, the given statement is contrary
to common-sense. In the latter example, for instance, the situation
where a dead person talks is unrealistic.
A compound structure riddle is characterized by a
combination of simple structures (usually three) juxtaposed or
strung together to form one. Each of this type of riddles requires
three answers. Here are two sample texts.
(3) Bamigbele ki i yana,
A borisa ki i sun otutu,
Eyingede ki i fara kan ni.
(etu, aro, werepe)
(He lives with us but never warms
himself by the fire place.
The Orisa devotee never sleeps in the cold.
Fragile egg will not have physical contact with us.
[gun-powder, hearth, cow-itch])
(4) Okan sare sese,
okan n posese,
eketa n keboosi ailese.
Meta la a pa a,
Meta la a mo on.
[odo, iyanrin, erofo]
(One is running,
The second is walking fast,
This third is complaining that he has no feet.
This riddles is in three parts,
It has to be solved in three parts.
[the river, the sand in the river, the mud])
The answer in each of the above type of riddle may or may not be
related semantically.
The metanlingual riddle aims at directing the attention of
the riddle to particular sectors of language with a view to
investigating how language works. Consider this example:
(5) Nkan me loo ni ipa ni
Ta e e rorun
Ti ifi ni sile laipa?
[ebi, ojo, oorun, eefin, eru]
(What kills one
And yet one does not die
And leaves one alive?
[hunger, rain, sun, smoke, load])
In the example, the action verb pa (to kill) is used as the predicate
of the answers to express their effect on a living man, hence the
The fourth type of Yoruba riddle is the puzzle riddle. Every
normal riddle has two important parts: the question part and the
answer part. The question part draws a comparison, or describes a
person, object or a situation, and from the description given in the
comparison, the solution should be found. But a puzzle riddle is
usually much longer in form and structure than the other three
types of riddles. In puzzle riddles no comparison between objects
or situations is drawn. Instead, a set of data is presented and from
this data, the riddle must work out the solution to the problem. This
type of riddle, existing also in South Africa, is what Cole-Reuchat7
refers to as a problem or conundrum riddle. The puzzle riddle may
be a dilemma requiring sound argument and good judgment. In
most cases they do not have specific solutions. Their solutions
depend on individual thinking and judgment, Here are a few
translated version of such riddles.
A mother, her son and his wife were traveling on water but their
boat capsized. Only the son could swim but he should not, by a
rule, rescue more than one person. Which of the two drowned
people should he save - his mother or his wife? Should the man
rescue his mother to show his gratitude for the past j care or save
his wife to keep his family going? This is really a dilemma.
A man gave his son ten kobo8 to buy three oranges. But on
getting to the orange seller he was given four oranges for ten kobo.
The boy refused to take the oranges saying that his father sent him
to buy three oranges, not four. No sooner had the argument started
than a man came to the scene. After knowing what the matter was,
he took one of the oranges threw it away and gave the boy the
remaining three oranges to take to his father. Who of the three
people involved in this riddle is the most foolish?
Four men and their wives had to cross a river. The only available
canoe could not take more that two persons at a time. A man
should not take another man's wife and a woman should not take
another man. How do these people cross the river following the
laid down principles?9
The riddle (8) is somehow mathematical and it requires
much thinking and calculation before the correct solution is got. In
fact, this riddle is different from (6) and (7) in that specific solution
can be got after some trial.
A number of poetic devices such as metaphor,
personification, hyperbole and irony are employed by a riddler.
Much has been said about metaphor.10 But in this chapter, our
emphasis is on personification, an important figure of speech that
is frequently employed in riddle texts. Personification endows
animals, ideas, abstractions and inanimate objects with human
form, character or sensibilities and emotions. Personification is a
very popular device a riddler often employs to drive home his
points and create more fun in the course of riddle plays. Each
personified object is often made to be symbolic of some kind of
good or evil attribute which the riddle wants to praise or condemn.
As we know, a riddle has two parts: the question part and
the answer part. Of course, the answer part is as important as the
question part, for without the answer it will not be possible to
recognize metaphor, the main vehicle of riddles. In most cases, a
riddle requires a one-word answer and it is the answer part that
helps one to determine whether or not personification has been
employed in the riddle. Let us consider the following example:
A gbeyewo kan rogbodo
O ni ka ma fowo kan oun.
(We marry a beautiful wife,
She says we should not touch her.)
The answer to this riddle is akekee (a scorpion) which is endowed
with human form and capable of marrying. A scorpion is a
poisonous insect which no man dares to touch. To supply this
answer correctly, the riddle must think deeply within the limited
time at his disposal, thus tasking his wits.
Riddles celebrate almost all aspects of Yoruba culture and
it is thus not a surprise that they touch some Yoruba taboos. There
are certain food items which are forbidden for some people,
especially women in Yoruba land. For example, the riddle:
Iya nla ona Ikoyi,
Ojo to ba je iyo, ni yoo ku o!
(The big mother on Ikoyi Road
The day she eats salt she will die!)
reminds us of the society's close observation of nature and
immediate environment. Igbin (snail), the correct answer to the
riddle, is being personified. Like human beings, a snail must not
eat salt. Of course there is an element of truth in the above riddle,
in that any snail that eats salt will surely die. This is a pointer to the
fact that the Yoruba are very observant. A similar example-drawn
from the society's observation of natural phenomena is the
Agbaagba meji n lo sode,
Ekinni n se saaju,
Ekeji naa n se saaju. .
(Two elderly people are going somewhere,
The first is asking the second to lead.
The second is also asking the first to lead.) >
The answer to this riddle is ese (legs). Here a person's legs are
personified, each of them representing an elderly person going
somewhere with his contemporary. The Yoruba have carefully
watched the movement of legs when walking along. The two
personified part of the body are so naturally related that there is
nowhere one goes without the other.
Yoruba riddles like the riddles in other lands are a good
reflection of the people's reaction or their interest in such things as
natural phenomena including water, fire, sun, moon and lightning.
Consider the following riddle:
Ole baba alo kan laelae,
Ole baba alo kan laelae,
Bi yoo ba ja ole,
Ariwo ni ipa,
(The thief of alo's father of old,
The thief of al o' s father of old, : If he wants to steal something,
He first of all shouts.)
Aara (lightning), which is the solution to the riddle in (12) is being
endowed with the human behavior. Lightning, a natural
phenomenon is treated like a thief capable of stealing people's
property. But contrary to the attitude of thieves, it shouts before
stealing, i.e. before killing or destroying some property. It is
shouting that is not characteristic of thieves that would force the
listeners to think deeply before supplying an answer.
There is no doubt that as the above examples (9-12) have
demonstrated, there is no object or creature the riddler cannot
personify to achieve his stylistic purpose.
Like folktales and proverbs, riddles are an important
element in the education of young children. It must be pointed out
that riddles have more definite functions than proverbs, although
like proverbs they are an integral part of the Yoruba culture and
tradition. Generally, riddles perform not only social and moral
functions but also cultural and educational functions.
The primary purpose of the riddle is entertainment. But,
apart from the amusement riddles give to the children, they also
constitute a formidable moral and intellectual exercise and are used
as a medium for developing the child's reasoning faculty as well as
skill in decision-making. There are some riddles whose faculties
have to be learnt by heart to be known and in this case the child's
knowledge has to be put to the test. Truly speaking Yoruba riddles
like the riddles in other parts of Africa serve as a task of wits.
Yoruba riddles not only develop the child intellectually but also
train him to be useful. However, we should note that intelligence is
a key to good morals. In Yoruba society, almost all parents want
their children to be upright, kind, honest and helpful to others and
they will spare no pain to instill these qualities either directly or
indirectly (by means of riddles).
Many riddles are instructive; they may mention
geographical names or make reference to historical events.
Certainly, riddles develop a sense of observation and often contain
elaborate and rich linguistic forms. As Yai emphasizes, riddles
have an advantage of being a tool with which its users explore the
language (Yoruba). Like proverbs, riddles are educational in their
content, which is based on experience and observation. The
educational value of riddles is a consequence of their cultural
Another important function of riddles is that they are
usually employed
to start a story-telling session to alert the children and make them
get the full
benefit of story-telling. Riddling can be played as a separate game
and it
may accompany folktales (alo onitan). Although riddles are used
along with
folktales, they form a greater source of the acquisition of general
than tales themselves. There and then riddles increase children's
span. In riddles are to be found many archaic words and structures
no longer
used in everyday speech. These, to be understood by the children,
have to be
explained to them by older playmates or by adults. Consider, for
example, a
riddle like:
Lafakale, lagunranran,
Asepo maa leku,
Aranwit maa lakeke,
Ajagun maa gbe ban.
(The creeping one, the erect one,
The oil-producer without an oil-pit,
The tread spinner without a spindle,
And the warrior without a gun.)
In the above example there are some difficult words describing
certain objects not immediately relatable to the children's
experience. The answers to the given riddles are epa (groundnut),
agbado (corn), akan (crab) and alantakun (spider) and the riddler
should be patient enough to explain the relationship between the
question part and the answer part of the riddle. For example, the
groundnut plant does not stand erect but creeps along the ground;
hence the descriptive name lafalake (the one that creeps on the
Riddles train the children's memory. Before reasonable
solutions could be supplied to quite a number of riddles, deep and
quick thinking is needed. At the same time, the children should try
to give answers as accurate as possible to given riddles. We could,
therefore, rightly assert that Yoruba riddles are an effective means
of testing and improving the listener's ability to think very fast and
accurately too. If this is achieved, it would help the children to
make quick decisions in their later life. An example of a riddle
performing this important educational function is:
Omo baba alo kan laelae,
Omo baba alo kan laelae,
Bi o ti nje ounje, Bee ni o n sun.
(The off-spring of alo's father of old,
The off-spring of alo's father of old,
As he eats
So he excretes it.)11
What might agitate the listeners' minds as soon as the riddle is
asked is the kind of creature that excretes instantly the food just
eaten. This is thought-provoking. Of course, each of the
participating children is expected to think out what the solution is
and also remember the framing, in case he might be called upon to
give a similar riddle the following day. This is a way of brushing
the children's memory and improving their reasoning faculty.
From the point of view of culture, the Yoruba have some
ways of introducing their custom and tradition to their children riddles being one. Some Yoruba riddles refer to Yoruba myths and
legends, while others call our attention to history, geography and
some other aspects of Yoruba culture. Thus we find riddles like:
Kin ni n ba Oba muti?
(What is it that drinks with the King?)
Kin ni n kan Oba nikoo
(What is it that knocks the King on the head?)
Kin lo n lo lojude Oba ti ko k'oba?
(What is it that passes by the King's house without greeting him?)
Kin lo deleOba ti ko si fila
(What is it that reaches the King's house but does not remove its
which make reference to a symbolization of royal prestige. In
Yoruba land, an Oba is highly placed and respected. He is the
natural ruler of the domain he governs. As pointed out in examples
15 to 18, there are certain things which should not be done to a
traditional ruler. It is a disrespect to dine with the Oba or greet him
with one's cap on. The answer to the above riddles (15-18) are a
house-fly (esinsin), a knife (obe olukonado), erosion (agbara ojo)
and palmwine (emu) respectively, each of which is personified for
stylistic effects.
O ke ni Ijagba.
A gbo ni Ijogbo, .
Won ni kin ni se? –
Won ni omo eera ni a to ladodo.
(He cried from a distant place.
And we heard him over here,
When asked what the ant's child's
uncircumcised penis had been touched.)12
Two aspects of Yoruba culture are transmitted through this riddle.
The first one is that the safety of everyone in Yoruba society is the
concern of his neighbor and the second is the age-long custom of
Yoruba history and folktales can be put to children when riddles
are in session. For example,
Koto kan n he lojude Ogunmola,
Ba a te run kokooko,
A o le wo o.
(There was a pit in front of Ogunmola's house,
If we did not bend the neck properly,
We could not see it.)i3
This riddle reminds us of the history of Basorun Ogunmola,
the war-leader of Ibadan. Basorun Ogunmola was a bold, fearless
and successful soldier and his great services rendered during Ijaye
war would forever be remembered by the Yoruba generally and the
people of Ibadan in particular. What the above riddle suggests is
that one has to be bold to approach Ogunmola.14 When children are
thought detailed history of the hero in schools they would just be
building on the foundation which had been laid for them through
the Yoruba riddles.
In this chapter, an attempt has been made to show that the
Yoruba riddles are not only useful for entertainment but also
effective means of bringing up a Yoruba child intellectually,
morally and socially. At the introduction of formal education in
Nigeria, primary school teachers (especially in the 1940s and
1950s) used to gather children under tree shades to tell them very
interesting riddles. This means that before Western culture came to
overshadow indigenous African ways of life, riddles were among
the principal means of moulding the character of the Yoruba child.
One would, therefore, recommend the continued use of the riddle
as an apparatus of mental and cultural training. Where they are
constantly and carefully organized Yoruba riddles instruct the
young more than any other aspect of folklore because of the
question-and-answer method, the competition they encourage and
the variety of topics they cover.
C. Beucgast, "Riddles in Bantu," African Studies, 16, (1957),
No, 3: 133-49.
W. Bascom, "Literary Style in Yoruba riddles," Journal of
American Folklore, 62, (1949), No. 2: 43.
A. Babalola, "Not Vernaculars but Languages," Inaugural
Lecture delivered at the University of Lagos (1974).
A. Olabimtan "Form and Meaning in Yoruba Riddles,"
Nigerian Magazine (1982) No. 140: 66-76.
O. Yai, "Some Structural Aspects of Yoruba alo opamo
Seminar Series Part II, (ed.) Oyelaran, (1976-7) 419-62. :
Yai, op. cit., (1977), p. 420.
Beucgast, op. cit, (1957), p. 148.
Kobo is Nigerian equivalence of cent.
Here is a solution to this Yoruba puzzle riddle (riddle (8)):
Sail to the other side
Take the boat back
A and A2
where A, B, D, and E represent the men and A2, B2,D2, and E2
their wives.
Olabimtan (1982), op. cit. and Yai (1977), op. cit., p. 458.
The solution to this riddle is ase or ajo (sieve).
The solution to this riddle is ibon (a gun).
The solution to this riddle is abiya (the armpit).
As a general, Basorun Ogunmola was unsurpassed for his
boldness and courage. As an administrator, he was
just and would not forgive any offender that offered
him bribes. For the practical demonstration of
Basorun Ogunmola's justice, see Samuel Johnson
(1921), 373-4.
Adapted with permission from B. Ajayi, "Riddles and the Yoruba
child," International Journal of Moral and Social Studies,
vol. 5, no. 5, (1990),
pp. 251-261.