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Leisure • Calm • African Philosophy • Serenity

How to Be Cool the Yoruba Way

Among the Yoruba people, an ethnic group of some 52 million spread between Nigeria, Togo and Benin, one of the most flattering ways to describe a person is to say they have much ‘itutu.’ The word denotes a particular approach to life: unhurried, composed, assured and unflappable. If a bus is late, a person of ‘itutu’ won’t shout or get in a dispute with a ticket vendor, they’ll let out a minor sigh and pull a weary smile. If the skies open just when they’ve laid out chairs in the garden for a party, they will – in their normal tranquil and unaffected way – simply take them all back in again. There isn’t much that should rattle a person of ‘itutu.’ 

   Rachidi Bissiriou, Young Wife and Mother, 1983 (copyright David Hill Gallery), Oguidigbo, Benin

Crucially, ‘itutu’ isn’t any sort of divine gift or chance trait. It’s a quality that can be cultivated and is the outcome of having absorbed a particular view of existence. For the Yoruba, agitation and anger flow from a mistaken and over-ambitious sense of what it lies in our power to alter. It’s when we believe that we are more in command of external reality than we actually are that we respond to reversals and frustrations with rage. The calm person of ‘itutu’ may be every bit as sad as their hysterical counterpart about the delayed bus or torrential shower, but what underpins their equanimity is a sense that trouble could not be skirted and must be accepted as belonging to the order of things. In their noble resignation, a person of ‘itutu’ displays a grasp of another key term in Yoruba philosophy: ‘àṣẹ’ which we might translate as destiny, existence, or the cosmic order. What lies in the province of ‘àṣẹ’ can’t be altered by any human will but an enlightened person should understand the direction of ‘àṣẹ’ and then adjust their desires and ambitions accordingly. 

There is an important detail here: ‘itutu’ doesn’t only render a person wise. It additionally makes them attractive, including physically attractive, and what we might call ‘cool’ – which is why any self-respecting young Yoruba will strive hard to adopt its outward signs, particularly when a distinguished local photographer like Rachidi Bissiriou has offered to take one’s portrait.

Many cultures retain a lingering suspicion that being effective might rely on a capacity to be frantic and hot tempered. For the Yoruba, agitation isn’t merely an offence to a proper understanding of the universe; it’s also just horribly unfashionable.

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