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Learning Yoruba

Posted on 11/04/2016
By Commonwealth Foundation


For six weeks in 2015 I was resident on the campus of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. I lived at Adebayo Hall with visiting students, post-grads and even some lecturers. On my first morning, after the necessary rituals – including a breakfast of ògì funfun, one of many lasting cravings from my childhood in Nigeria – I took a twenty minute walk to the Yoruba Language Centre. As I walked a few taxi drivers called out to me.  I approached one, uncertain what he could want.

The man leaned out the window of his car and spoke to me, ‘Ẹ jọ̀ọ́, níbo ni Adébáyọ̀ Hall?’

This seemed a wonderful omen, as if a bird had shat on my shoulder, or a butterfly landed on my nose. No doubt I replied in a parched accent. Since the lost car was not far away from its desired destination, I pointed and made few noises, all to keep the person questioning me; the person who had approached and spoken to me on the assumption that I was a local, trusting I belonged not only to the place but the language. After about two more vehicles stopped to ask me for directions to Adebayo Hall, my step developed a spring. The grey sky and cloying heat were gorgeous weather. I passed the security gate and made a point of greeting the guards. Ẹ káàárọ̀. O jàre, ẹ káàárọ̀, they responded in chorus. Further up the slight incline, a woman was sweeping the pavement. Ẹ káàárọ̀, I greeted her. E ku’ṣẹ I added. Oooo.

My repertoire of Ìkíni (greetings) would increase over time. Greetings form a very important part of the Yoruba language and culture.  In fact while studying I realised that a whole book could be written on the Ikini, their place and meaning. Ẹ kú ọwọ́ l’ómi o for the people (often women) in the house of a newborn child; greeting them for their wet hands. Ẹ kú iṣẹ́ àná; greeting a person for yesterday’s work. I relished the way in which the language made allowance for all these particular circumstances, including greeting people for sitting down (Ẹ kú jokoo), for caring (Ẹ kú ìtọ́jú), for walking (Ẹ kú ìrìn).

Some of the greetings have specific responses. If you meet someone you haven’t seen in a while you say Ó tó ọjọ́ méta (it has been three days) to which the person is meant to reply ọjọ́ kan pẹ̀lú (add one more day). If an older person says to you Ṣé’alaafia ni (are you in good health) you respond by saying Adúpẹ́ (we are thankful). When I perform these scripts, far from feeling stiff and formal, I experience myself as if in a play; an intricate word-dance that has the power to bind me to strangers. Is the kinship I feel just nostalgia and romanticism? I can’t tell.

From as early as I can remember I wanted to learn Arabic. My father, a Nigerian, wrote his PhD on Classical Arabic poetry. This fact formed part of the lore of my family. My mother was a Barbadian, with a Master’s degree in Urban Planning. My parents had met each other while pursuing these academic distinctions at Edinburgh University in the late 60s. I remember, at four or five, my father’s fat Arabic books and the details that fascinated me. The drawn lettering, the fact of reading from right to left.  That these books started where other books normally ended made them wiser to me, somehow; more important. I once begged my father and he wrote out the letters of the alphabet in an A5 exercise book.  That was as far as our lessons would ever progress. Alif, baa and taa, as much as I would ever remember.

Over the years, my longing for Arabic did not disappear, but receded into that bank of feeling we all have; a collection of small, not intolerable, even cherished aches. In its place would form an urgent need to comprehend, speak and write in my father tongue, Yorùbá. The urgency built over time but it was first instigated when I was twelve and my family moved from Nigeria to Cape Town, South Africa. At twelve I was already of two places and, within two decades, South Africa would become the country in which I had lived the longest, a third place. I think the yearning for my language increased as my sense of belonging became more complex: mathematically proportionate.

A South African once chided me for still not being able to speak Xhosa or Zulu or Sotho or any of the other official South African languages apart from a meagre Afrikaans which I had been forced to learn, arriving in 1992. My brother and I had to be able to pass Afrikaans (minimum 33.3%) in order to enter into a South African university. This was a country still in the shadows of Apartheid. No one was forcing us to learn Xhosa or Zulu and, even after democracy settled down to grow plump, no one ever would. Similarly, no one ever made me learn Yoruba. In the Staff Primary School and Moremi High School that I went to in Ile-Ife, we had Yoruba classes but they couldn’t have been taken that seriously or I would not have passed. Until I arrived in South Africa, my moving forward in education had never been pinned to any language other than English. Perhaps when people speak of decolonising the mind, this is part of what they are referring to.

To my father’s credit, most of the wonder I grew for Yoruba came from him. My father travelled often when I was a child but his returns were always punctuated by still evenings in the sitting room, my brothers and I sprawled out, as Daddy read from Daniel Olurunfemi Fagunwa’s novels. Igbó Olódùmarè. Ìrèké Oníbùdó. I hope my father wouldn’t be disheartened to know that while I remember the sounds (down to the crickets outside), while I remember the special effort required to follow stories in a language I really could not speak, while I remember the timbre of his voice, the joy he took in this family ritual, I do not remember the stories themselves. Now as I look forward to a day when I can return to these stories I sometimes despair that my father did not force us to learn Yoruba. But perhaps if he did I would be fluent in the language but unaware of its beauties. Maybe my love affair with the language could only take hold in its spectral presence.

The Yoruba Language Centre was founded in 2009 out of an institutional agreement between the University of Ibadan and American Councils for International Education. Headed by Prof Kolawole, the Centre functions with a staff of eight people, including a dynamic group of teachers. It runs programmes both for newcomers to the language and for the children of Yoruba speakers who don’t, for whatever reason, speak the language of one or both their parents. I discovered the school through my father who was a senior to Prof Kolawole when they were both secondary school students at Kings College. When I read that the programme targets people like myself – children haunted by phantom Yoruba – I knew I would take it and, in so doing, turn my yearning into work.

I cleared my schedule, gathered my savings, booked ticket and accommodation and moved from Johannesburg to Ibadan for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks I would take a series of exams to test my listening, speaking and writing proficiency in Yoruba; everything was to be topped by a seminar I would deliver on any topic of my choice, so long as I spoke in Yoruba. I was to be the only student, since the time I had available was not during the Centre’s busy period. However, on the walls of the school and through the anecdotes of teachers, I found evidence of the students that had come before me. People like myself, with dual cultures: Igbo mothers, Yoruba fathers or Yoruba mothers, Ugandan fathers and so on. In addition the YLC alumnus consists of several American exchange students and the occasional scholar from South America, furthering their study of Candomble. Candomble, mostly practiced in Brazil, is a younger relative to the Ifa Divination System practiced amongst the Yoruba.

My schedule consisted of a variety of classes taught by three different teachers. On average I spent 15 hours a week in class, several hours on homework alongside weekly class outings to practice the language in different settings and a daily one-hour conversation with my Language Partner. It was intense but also ecstatic work. I was often proud to discover how much Yoruba I had retained just from living in Nigeria when I was younger. I was also often ashamed.

My father was one of the happiest people to hear that I would be devoting time and effort to improve on my Yoruba. We started speaking to each other in Yoruba – mine of course halting – and sending messages and emails. On one occasion we were in Lagos together, checking into our hotel rooms. Standing by the counter as the operator entered our details into her computer, my father said something to me and I replied. The operator started laughing. She was laughing at me. If you’ve never felt shame and want to, attempt to learn a language people think you ought already to know.

What’s wrong with you, the operator asked me. Why are you talking like that? She was referring to my poor pronunciation, not resolved by 120 hours of working at the language over six weeks. I wanted to say to her: My mother isn’t Yoruba, we didn’t speak Yoruba at home, I have never really been taught Yoruba, I’m trying to learn it now.

‘You Yorubas make learning this language very hard,’ I said to her instead, aware my anger was misplaced. She had touched an open wound. My shame at not being able to speak Yoruba fluently is not logical, instead it is linked to a sense of inadequacy.

I eventually made peace with the fact that in my pursuit of Yoruba I would need to demolish the ego, leave it unconscious on the floor. When I meet Yoruba speaking people I rush to practice; with those I know well enough I suggest they address me only in Yoruba. The language is like a lover I will never really possess but I will chase relentlessly. I love who I become when I speak Yoruba. The language returns me to something I was not aware was taken away; it makes space, it allows for me. With its metaphors and lyricism, it seems a language made for writers. Rich with proverbs, it is a universe of thick wisdom. The other day my father got off an airplane and left his daintily-sized laptop computer in the pocket of the seat in front of him. I knew he would have been upset at first, but by the time he relayed the story to me, he had calmed down. He offered some Yoruba rationale – mo n fi ofun ra emin. I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘it is a way of being positive in situations of personal material loss’. Translated literally: use loss to buy your soul.

As I wind along the footpath of learning Yoruba, my heart is frequently jolted by its candour, its beauty and vastness. I learnt that ojú obìnrin and ojú ọkùnrin refer to the genitalia of women and men. Oju means eye, it can also mean face. Far from shrouding or hiding sexuality, this language seems to suggest that sexuality (I’m using metonymy here) is simply another kind of sight. I learnt that f’ọkàn ba lẹ̀, the phrase for ‘relax’, literally means take your heart to meet the floor. For a writer who has frequently encountered the adage “show don’t tell’, how special to wake up to a language of pictures.

Several months after my Yoruba classes were over and I was back in South Africa, I received an email from a man I didn’t know. He was writing to me about an article someone had written on my novel. She had quoted me as saying something that resonated with him and, amongst other things, he was writing to mention that. I was flattered. But what really got my attention was reading his email signature and learning that he was a Yoruba teacher at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I would have written back anyway but, armed with this knowledge, I wrote back in all my Yoruba ebullience. I mentioned to him that I was a student of the language and within a few weeks Dr Koleade Odutola was firmly installed as my new Yoruba teacher, though he refused any payment.

We spoke weekly on Skype, eight time zones apart, our conversations lasting an hour or more. We agreed to Sundays, 9pm for me, 1pm for him. On the night of our first lesson I hurriedly finished dinner and called him. Like any good teacher he encouraged me to speak Yoruba to him, to make mistakes, not to be embarrassed. Very soon I felt comfortable with Dr Odutola and incredibly grateful. The lessons were not formalised, we usually spoke about whatever was happening. If I’d eaten, he’d encourage me to talk about that, using Yoruba words for the foods I’d prepared. If I had travelled somewhere, we spoke of that. If I was expecting guests we would speak of that. At the end of each lesson, I would thank him. His response rarely changed. E se, I would say. Ẹ ṣe gan an ni, thank you very much. Kò tọ́pẹ́, he would say, which means it is nothing to offer thanks for.

We continued in this vein over the next weeks and slowly a picture of Dr Odutola formed in my mind. A man in his fifties, perhaps. Unmarried, I learnt one day in class. No children. I learnt that he cycled to his office for our sessions. I imagined him cycling and was always warmed by the image. I myself live alone, also with no children and although I am two decades or so younger than Dr Odutola, I knew we might be regarded as unusual in our shared Yoruba culture with its expectations of marriage and progeny. I imagined him teaching his American students and took sheepish pleasure in the notion that my pronunciation could not be as bad as theirs. Christmas drew near and I asked Dr Odutola about his plans. It is a strange way to get to know someone.

I often wished our classroom wasn’t the Internet. A Frenchman I know who is learning English has an App that sends him an assortment of new words a day. I have wished for that. He does a language exchange with an English-speaking woman who lives in his town and wants to learn French. I have wished for that. My English-speaking nephew goes to Swedish lessons in order to be proficient in his mother tongue. He lives in Johannesburg as do I, so where are my Yoruba lessons? Where are the tried and tested textbooks, the classmates with whom I can walk this journey?

In place of all that is Dr Odutola, calm and patient. He posted me a game he’d devised, consisting of Yoruba words. I posted him a copy of my book and a Yoruba play my father had written. We made homework out of me reading the foreword (Ọ̀rọ̀ Ìṣájú) to the play, navigating the three tones that Yoruba consists of – do re and mi. He would correct my tones and I would try again.  Our latest project is a Yoruba children’s book. I also have a new frightening ambition: to write a novel with portions of it in Yoruba. This seems very far away from today but that doesn’t discourage me. Sometimes our flow of lessons gets interrupted but I have to persevere; I have to keep coming back to it for as long as Dr Odutola is there on the other end of the line.

I still don’t speak Zulu or Xhosa or Sotho (and it is very likely that I never will) but when people come at me or attempt to make me feel bad about it I fight them off with good-nature. Listen, I say, I’m still trying to learn my own language, so don’t harass me abeg.

Yewande Omotoso

Head Tie_03Yewande Omotoso is an architect, with a masters in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel ‘Bomboy’ (2011 Modjaji Books), won the South African Literary Award First Time Author Prize. She was a 2015 Miles Morland Scholar. Yewande’s second novel ‘The Woman Next Door’ (Chatto and Windus) will be published in May 2016.