Ibadan, Nigeria – Mama Debo is a house-proud widow who takes special care of the one-storey residence her husband bequeathed his entire family. She complains that her dirty tenants have become a nuisance since his death. Ideally, she says, she would have evicted them from the property, but as the residence belongs to the extended family she doesn’t feel able to.
The family house is a quintessential symbol of genealogy for the Yoruba people and a source of pride. It’s a centre for ceremonies – christenings, weddings, retirement parties and, of course, funerals. From the smallest villages to the biggest cities of Yorubaland, family houses are architectural heirlooms passed from one generation to the next.
Tradition forbids people from selling the houses. They are often shared between the wives of a deceased patriarch – the size of a woman’s share is related mostly to her seniority and sometimes to the number of children she has.
“The family is an undying concept in Yoruba culture,” explains Kunle Ogundoro, a PhD candidate and social commentator. “Hence renovating one’s family house is an image-making endeavour.”
And that renovation often happens when somebody dies.
“Deaths [especially those of the elderly] bring members of the family together. The idea of beautifying the family home is another way of bestowing honour on the deceased.”
When Mama Debo’s husband died three years ago, relatives came from far and wide to attend the funeral in Ibadan. Today, she is the sole occupant of the landlord’s section of the family house – a relatively modern apartment in the New Adeoyo district of the city. Her grown-up children have left to fend for themselves. Despite her displeasure with the tenants’ poor hygiene and unsanitary habits, the property is well-maintained.
Mama Debo lounges in her parlour, a “family room” that is modestly furnished with four armchairs and a sofa that serves as an ideal spot from which to watch Nollywood blockbusters. There’s also a dining table and chairs.
“We didn’t renovate our [family] house prior to the burial ceremony of our husband,” she recalls. “The owner himself had painted his property before his demise.”
Almost every family in Yorubaland adheres to the custom of refurbishing the family house in preparation for funerals.
In many cases, years of neglect have turned these residences into run-down eyesores. So Nigerians and, in particular, members of the Yoruba ethnic group use family occasions and ceremonies as a justification to upgrade their family house to meet modern aesthetic styles. Since no single person can claim absolute ownership of a family house, its maintenance is often a collaborative effort.
The wives and children of the deceased pool their funds to replace old furniture, repair peeling paintwork and renovate other worn-out fixtures. Some wealthy families will even repair damaged neighbourhood roads, particularly those that lead to the residence of the deceased, in order to bolster the family’s image.
But the rivalry that is common within polygamous families in Nigeria can make such efforts challenging.
“I personally don’t believe in the custom of refurbishing a deceased [person’s] property. Why can’t it be done when the person is still alive to enjoy and appreciate it?” says Mama Debo. “I think people do it for show. They want their guests to think they are more than they really are.”
Just across the street from her residence is a newly renovated family house. The patriarch of the Oyebode family has recently died and in preparation for his funeral, his residence had been painted in bright hues. It stands out amid the other weather-battered properties in the neighbourhood. A colourful banner hangs proudly on the façade – an obituary of the deceased.
Unbeknown to the passers-by who stop to admire the house, the Oyebodes have also contributed to the aesthetics of their neighbourhood and by extension, the city.
The Oba’s palace was the seat of government before the city became a British protectorate in 1893. The edifice was upgraded to reflect the influence of the colonial overlords. But the surrounding buildings retain the ambience of the distant past. Mud houses with rusted corrugated roofs spread out in all directions.
The Oja’ba, the King’s Market, is directly opposite the palace and remains one of the busiest commercial centres in the old town.
Across the city, statues of heroes adorn major road intersections and roundabouts – a testament to the value afforded to history and heritage here.
“Yoruba culture is very dynamic and [our] society is very articulate in keeping this dynamism,” says Niyi Akangbe, a lecturer in the African languages department of the University of Ibadan. “It is part of the unwritten tradition of the Yoruba people to give a new touch to their buildings when the elderly ones die.”
“In fact, in 2012 when my own father died we did the same thing. Well, the [family] house is not too old. So we repainted, and areas that had cracks were fixed too. We gave maximum attention to the frontage where guests and passers-by would see. It cost us about 500,000 naira [$2,175].”
Akangbe explains that such renewal projects are not peculiar to the Yorubas. His academic colleague, an Edo woman who recently lost her mother, spent more than $4,000 to refurbish their family house in Benin City.
But Joe Omirin, a town planner, believes such traditions may be dying. He was forced by elders in his family to perform certain burial rites for his deceased mother and hopes others keep them alive too.
“When people die, they must be given a befitting burial,” he says. “Part of … a befitting burial is that they leave behind a legacy.”