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An In-Depth Look Into Lucumi and Yoruba In Comparison

In Matanzas, Cuba, some children play around, usually oscillating between two languages – Spanish and another they call Lucumi. Save for some differences, Lucumi is our own Nigerian Yoruba. The people that speak Lucumi are the Lucumi people – the descendants of people taken away from Nigeria by way of Badagry to the Americas. But Cuba is not the only place with people that speak Yoruba in the world. The Nagô people of Brazil and Aku people of Sierra Leone are also the descendants of Yoruba slaves.

Between the 1400s and 1800s, more than 3.5 million slaves were shipped from Nigeria to the Americas. This number accounted for over 30% of all slaves traded. While the slave trade was abolished by the British Parliament in 1807, slaves called the Saros began returning to Nigeria from Cuba and Brazil in 1830, while some of them settled in Ghana. African slaves reaching Nigeria from Brazil were more commonly known as Agudas. But a major percentage of them remained in Brazil, Cuba and America.

Doherty Villa (Built for J. A. Doherty around 1915) in Brazilian Style. Photo credit: Kelechi Anabaraonye


Over the years, Lucumi has become a lot different in pronunciation and tone from its source, Yoruba. But this difference isn’t a major deviation from the language. Due to a lack of documentation of the written Yoruba language pre-colonial masters and a heavy Spanish influence, Lucumi is its own language now. Yoruba, in comparison to Spanish, does not have the letters: c, ch, ll, ñ, q, v, x, z. Òrìṣà, a type of god, is pronounced Orichá in Lucumi. An absence of “sh” in the Spanish language is replaced with “ch”.

As in Spanish, accents exist only on the second to last syllable, stripping away the visual adornments and tone guides in the original Yoruba language. Other words are slightly different. For example, Ijoko (a chair) is Iyoko. Arguments have been made that Lucumi is the closest we might get to “original Yoruba” and it is possible to restore the words in Spanish writing back to standard Yoruba, especially as the widely adopted Yoruba is modern and presents some new language features compared to the old.

Doherty Villa (Built for J. A. Doherty around 1915) in Brazilian Style. Photo credit: Kelechi Anabaraonye

The presence of Lucumi and the closeness of the language to Yoruba is a marvel in itself. After decades, there are a people with a shared origin and shared language living in different parts of the world. So similar and yet so different. Lucumi speakers everywhere in Cuba and other areas of the world speak the language as well as any Yoruba speaker would.

While we all share a common home in Nigeria, items and structures that were meant to remind one of the origins and the reason for displacement are rapidly disappearing. The Ilojo Bar, also known as ‘Casa do Fernandez’, a structure built by returned slaves, was demolished in 2016. Linguist and teacher Kola Tubosun wrote about the disappearing state of Yoruba heritage and the failure of the government to keep national monuments. Today, Kelechi Anabaraonye, a history enthusiast, documents the history of Lagos through photos and is an activist for pieces of our past to remain and make for good stories for the future.

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