SUMMER STORIES: Being an Oyinbo in Yorubaland

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

Allen Xiao is a UW-Madison graduate student working in human geography. This summer, Xiao completed field work in Nigeria and shares his experience with local transport, language and culture. Now back in Madison, Xiao is coordinating “Post-colonial Consciousness: Representations of China in Africa”, a Borghesi-Mellon Workshop.

Being an Oyinbo in Yorubaland

Dáńfó (mini-bus)

I am a Chinese student pursuing Ph.D. in human geography at UW-Madison. Before I came here, I had been to Nigeria twice when I was trained in anthropology in Hong Kong. The country is not fresh to me, but this journey was still thrilling as I began to act as a junior Africanist, equipped with Yoruba language skills which I picked up in the vibrant African studies community in Madison.

I didn’t go to Nigeria for fun. I carried my research questions to Lagos, the largest metropolis in West Africa. This summer, I am especially interested in how Nigerian people, in contrast to Chinese migrants, mobilize (or fail to mobilize) themselves on the roads in Lagos.

Fig. 2: Keke (tricycle)
Kéké (tricycle)

As an ethnographer, I am a local, taking all kinds of vehicle every day in the city. Dáńfó (above) is the most ordinary bus carrying passengers from one place to another. It usually bears 16-20 people, four people a row except the front seat. Kéké (left), which carries four passengers, is a smaller tricycle running in a short distance within limited areas. Ọ̀kadà (motorcycle) is banned on the main roads in Lagos but can be still found in some districts. Apart from these three major commuting vehicles, Lagosians also take BRT bus, mólùẹ̀ and taxi. However, Chinese migrants rarely take local transportation, especially dáńfó.


When I entered the dáńfó on my own, the driver curiously asked me, “Òyìnbó, where are you going?” “Òyìnbó” literally means white man and can be understood as foreigner. I am quite used to the way they called me on the street, “Òyìnbó wálé (come)”. Sometimes, I suddenly replied in Yorba, “Kí lo ṣelẹ (what’s going on?). And all of them laughed to tears and were surprised I was able to speak Yoruba. Back to the driver’s question, I answered, “Iyana Ipaya”. The driver felt amused, “Òyìnbó knows Iyana Ipaya?” I responded, “Òyìnbó knows everything”.

Fig. 3: Ikeja Under Bridge
Ikeja Under Bridge

In order to survive, I have to know. In Lagos, there are no street signs for the dáńfó route. The dáńfó buses going in a certain direction usually park at particular sites. I need to figure them out by myself. In this way, I interacted with drivers, conductors, passengers, and passerby every day. They taught me how to become a Lagosian traveling in a terrible traffic jam and how to strategically bargain with people. I chose to do so not only because I want to obtain local knowledge but also because I can’t afford taking taxi in Lagos. Despite the economical dáńfó , I still bargained frequently as Lagos is desperately expensive to ordinary Nigerians and also to the poor graduate student from the U.S. You can’t imagine that 300 naira (1.5 US dollars) can be spent crossing a state border from Ife to Ibadan, whereas this amount can only cover a journey crossing a bridge from Obalende to Ikeja during rush hours. Rush hours (7-10 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.) are also my productive research hours. I wandered on the street to observe how the police managed the traffic (above) and interviewed them later. Due to the chaotic urban life in Lagos, Nigerian passengers and I were all exhausted and fell sleep in the dáńfó . Sometimes they leaned on my shoulder (below) and sometime vice versa.

Fig. 4: On the Danfo bus from Ikeja to Ojota
On the Danfo bus from Ikeja to Ojota

Indeed, Lagos is a special city. I realized it especially when I traveled to other cities in Yorubaland. Accompanied with my Yoruba teaching assistant Ope, I went to Ijebu Ode, a small city in Ogun state. I ordered different Yoruba apparels there, including fìlà (hat), bùbá (loose blouse) and ṣòkòtò (trousers). When I put them on one day (below), people began to call me “omo Yoruba” (Yoruba’s son/boy).

In the field, I learned much more about Yoruba culture than I did in the class, such as clothes, food, and even festival. I was fortunate to attend a local New Yam Festival in Oka Akoko, a small town in Ondo state. I met with Oba Adeleye, the king of Oka Land and witnessed a fantastic festival celebration (below), including worship rituals, conferment of Chieftaincy title, and cultural performance. This experience reminded me of many cultural memories in my hometown in Central China and in my previous field sites in South China. The comparative cultural perspective is what I treasure and what I could contribute to African Studies.

Fig. 5: with an estate guard
With an estate guard


Oba Adeleye in red