What can emotional words in Yoruba tell us about how mental health is perceived in Nigerian culture?



In order fully understand mental health, I believe we need to gain an understanding of our unique cultural context. Our culture plays a big role in constructing what emotions we even experience and what feelings we deem acceptable or not. There are six main emotions found in most cultures sadness, happiness, surprise, disgust, anger and fear. However there are emotions such as amae which refers to a pleasant feelings that arises from a sense of togetherness and dependency which is a basic emotion in Japan. However this word doesn’t exist in western languages as western culture doesn’t promote collectiveness and dependency. In tahiti an island in the pacific ocean there is no word for sadness in the local language. The sinhala language of Sri Lanka has no word for guilt and the nyinba people of Nepal have no word for love. These differences in how emotion is expressed through language will most definitely affect how we think about our emotions and how they manifest.
I’m very interested in how this applies to Nigerians and how our languages talk to us about emotions. Coming from a Yoruba family where displays of emotions can be very expressive or very repressive compared to the English culture that I saw around me sparked my curiosity and investigation about how the Yoruba language conveys emotions.
Therefore I want to unravel the meaning of emotional words in Yoruba and how the literal translation can give us clues about Nigerian culture:

Sadness/grief- ibanuje- inside is spoilt

Happiness-idunnu- joy is inside

Anger-ibinu/ibinuje- stirrup inside

Fear –ijaaya- cut chest itara- stinging the body

Disgust-irira- friction on the body

Suffering-iyaje- calamity eating the person

In English emotional words aren’t related in morphology as they seem to come from different root words. However in Yoruba there is a common root of ‘nu’ in some of the words, nu or inu refers a containing space inside one’s body and it can also mean stomach. Our emotions are seen to directly affect the body rather than being isolated in the mind. I believe this interpretation of emotion in Yoruba can give us a lot of valuable information. In Africa there is still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding about mental health. Which I believe partially stems from the fact that words like depression and anxiety don’t exist in our languages,. Therefore it can be easy for people to dismiss them as a ‘western phenomenon’ . But if we take Yoruba as an example we can perhaps see that depression may be expressed as a severe form of ‘ibanuje’ a rotting or persistent upset in someone insides. Anxiety may be felt as your chest being cut or constant stinging in the body. Therefore a lot of people may think they have having a physical problem rather than a psychological one. For example someone may have a panic attack and believe that their is something physically wrong with their heart when it’s actually anxiety that they are suffering from.

This is showed in the words mentioned as emotions weren’t described as upsetting the head but an upset in the body. A lot of words also symbolise the many of the bodily symptoms people describe when suffering from mental health issues, for example some people suffering with anxiety may also have irritable bowel syndrome. I have seen a case where anytime this person felt anxious they would have to release the anxiety by going to the toilet. We could say reflecting on the ‘ibanuje’ that they were releasing the spoilt contents of their inside.

I believe that this cultural bound information is so information as most of us express ourselves best in our mother tongue which for any Nigerians is probably not English and even if it is English it’s still going to be tailored to the Nigerian tongue. Therefore when we speak about mental health in a Nigerian context, I believe it’s important to not our use western terminology but to describe it in a way that embodies the audience we are talking to. For example if someone is confused about what depression is it may help to describe it to someone using bodily symptoms and explaining the effects mental health has on the body. I believe that this would help open conversations and understanding to the Nigerian public at large about understanding mental illness.

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