THE IWOFA SYSTEM IN YORUBALAND AND THE LAWS THAT WAS REGULATING IT
The term Iwofa has no equivalent in English. It denotes one who serves another periodically in lieu of the interest on money lent. In short, it is one in service for interest. It has been mistranslated a “pawn” by those who fancied they saw a resemblance to it in that system, and are trying to identify everything native with those that are foreign, and consequently, as in other similar cases, much mischief has been done thereby.
The Yoruba man is simply shocked to hear of “pawning” a man as is done with goods and chattels; to pawn in Yoruba is “fi dogo” which term is never applied to a human being. It has also been compared to slavery by those ignorant of the legal conditions ruling the system; but an Iwofa is a free man, his social status remains the same, his civil and political rights are intact, and he is only subject to his master in the same universal sense that “a borrower is a servant to the lender.”
Iwofas are held quite distinct from slaves; the verbs applied to each system mark the distinction e.g. “ra” to buy is applied to a slave, “ya” to lend or engage (a hand) to an Iwofa; consequently, you can buy a slave, but engage an Iwofa or serviceman. The derivation of the term is probably from “Iwo” the entering into, and “Efa” a period of six days; hence an Iwefa is one who enters into a recurrent sixth-day service.
The Iwofa system is a contract entered into in the presence of witnesses called “Onigbowo” i.e. sponsors, the money-lender is termed “Oluwa” i.e. master, and the worker Iwofa, i.e. a serviceman. It is a legal transaction recognized and protected by the laws of the country. Whatsoever the amount of money lent, it is the law that the service rendered goes for the interest, and only the principal is paid back whenever a payment is made whether after a few days or after many years.
An Iwofa may be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, and the laws for each differ accordingly. Iwefa lives in his own house and plies his own trade, but he is required to clean a piece of land equal to 100 yam heaps or an equivalent in his master’s farm once a week, the Yoruba week consisting of five days. The people being mainly agricultural, farm-cleaning is the work of their daily life and is the recognized ordinary system of labour.
Cleaning three hundred heaps is the ordinary amount of an average man’s daily work, consequently, a strong man often found it possible to work in three different farms on the same day, for different masters, or to do three week’s work at a time in one farm, and have 14 off days at a stretch, in which he is free to follow his own trade without interruption. Special arrangements can also be made if a longer period is desired, but the Iwefa is bound to make up for the number of days lost.
This is the original law, but it is subject to slight modification or variation in various places, according to the local value, or the amount of money lent; e.g. amongst the Egbas, a whole day’s work is required instead of a morning’s work. But whatever modification of the original law is made in any particular locality, the law for that tribe is always fixed by the authority, and never subject to the whims and caprice of an individual money-lender.
The master is to treat the serviceman as his social rank demands, he mingles freely with his equals in the house or in the field as a member of the household. A kind master often allows him his breakfast before he quits the field although he is not bound to do so, and if a master is too exacting or disagreeable, he may be changed any day without any previous notice, once the money lent is paid back in full.
Where the master is a great chief or a rich man, the serviceman may live under his protection and own him his feudal lord; hence some men never troubled themselves to pay back the money, but may rather incur further obligations, being safe and free under the protection of a great name. Some men there are, who are better able to do another man’s work than their own. An Iwofa is never subject to punishment physical or otherwise, if he fail in his weekly service, the sponsors are called upon to make good the deficiencies.
An Iwofa differs from a slave in that a slave must live with his master, an Iwofa in his own house. A slave can be compelled to work for his master every day, an Iwofa for a limited amount of work for half a day in the week, and that not by compulsion but from obligations of honour. A slave can be punished, an Iwofa cannot be. A slave has lost his independence and political rights, an Iwofa retains both. A slave has no one responsible for him, an Iwofa has two at least. In fine an Iwofa can go and come as he likes, a slave cannot.
For women, the same law holds good generally but with some modifications on account of their sex; they work generally as char-women once a week, and have a meal in the house before returning home. In some cases, they may live among the womenfolk in their master’s house, carrying on their own work, and lending a helping hand in the housework and in harvest time do their own share of the day’s work in the field along with the other women.
Some are engaged in trade, in which they sell for their master at the same time, and bring him the proceeds of his own articles as the allotted service rendered. When the trade is done in the home market, payments are made every nine days which are market days; when out of town, at the return of the caravan. If a servicewoman is tampered with by the master, the money is thereby considered absolutely paid, and the debt discharged.
If forced against her will, not only is the debt cancelled, but he is also liable to prosecution and heavy fines besides to be paid both to the woman’s husband as damages and to the town authorities as court fees. If a young unmarried woman is tampered with, not only is the debt ipso facto discharged, but the master has to repay the fiancéall the money he has spent on her and also a betrothal “dowry” to the parents besides.
If the matter is not arranged amicably and the case has to go before the town authorities, the master has to pay, and heavy fines are inflicted on him. Often has a rich man been reduced to poverty by this means and consequently they are always very careful. If a betrothed girl becomes marriageable whilst in service and her fiancéwishes to get married at once, he has only to pay back the loan and lead his intended bride away.
A woman cannot be married whilst doing service work. A boy or a girl in service has to live entirely with the master or mistress as a domestic servant, inasmuch as their services are not worth much and they have to be trained besides, and the parent or whoever placed him there is supposed to have his whole time to ply his trade and withdraw his child as soon as possible; therefore, the boy must give the master his whole time whatever that may be worth.
The master is bound to feed him but not necessarily to clothe him, although many kind masters do that as well. They have a fixed time to visit their parents, usually once a week. The boys generally tend horses and run errands, and the girls engage with the house-wives in domestic affairs. They are always with the boys and girls of their own age in the family. The law protects such children very strongly.
If the child refuse to stay any longer with the master or mistress for any cause whatever, they are never forced against their wish, but the parent or guardian must provide a substitute, or perform himself the weekly task. If a child die during his or her service, the master must prove to the satisfaction of the parents and (if need be) of the town authorities that it was not due to any act of carelessness or neglect on his part and that he provided ample medical aid for him.
The troubles accruing from young Iwofas are often a deterrent to the acceptance of them for service; some folks would expect and demand more comforts for their children in service than they can provide for them at home. Marriages and funerals are the two great causes of money borrowing. But this system is not limited alone to the business of professional money-lenders, it enters much into other transactions of their everyday life.
The system of engaging domestic servants for service with a monthly wage is unknown in this country, the Iwofa system is what is resorted to for that purpose. A parent will even put his child into service that way when there is no debt to pay in order to train him into habits of discipline and industry, and return the money when they feel that the child has been sufficiently trained. Some would do so and put the money into trade and when satisfied with the profits made, return the principal and bring the child home.
The Iwofa system is used also for an apprenticeship. A man who wants his son to learn a particular trade would put him under the craftsman for the purpose, and obtain from him a certain amount of money; the master, wishing to get his interest out of the boy will see that he learns speedily and well, so as to be of some use to him. In this way, both are benefited. A chief or a well-to-do gentleman with a wild and unruly son whom he wishes to tame, or who is indulged at home, would also resort to this method for training and discipline.
In such a case the boy will remain with such a handicraftsman until he is able to earn his own livelihood by his craft, then the money is paid back and the boy returns home. This method of lending money is the only one known for investment and is therefore resorted to as their banking system. So, the Iwofa system may be regarded as one and the same time as one for banking, apprenticeship, and domestic service.
Since the establishment of the British Protectorate, there has been more than one attempt made to abolish the system as a “species of slavery” and it was successful as we don’t really have the Iwofa System again in Yorubaland. The Yorubas themselves never at any time regarded the Iwefa system as slavery; to so regard it must be due either to an ignorance of the laws regulating it or because an exact equivalent cannot be found in any European system.
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