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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mi Sa’bo!! (My Yoruba language journey)

Just before my 1st birthday, my folks left the UK to return to Nigeria.  However because of work/setting up a new business, my mum shuttled between the UK and Nigeria.  My parents decided my 6 yr old sister was old enough to be with my dad (ably assisted by female relatives), while was I placed in the loving care of my grandmother in Ibadan, Mama ‘badan.

Mama 'badan (now sadly deceased) was the greatest grandma in the world (well she loved me totally and unreservedly so how can that be bettered? LOL).  A fierce church-going woman, she didn’t speak English, so between 1 – 2.5yrs, I grew up speaking nothing but fluent ‘Ijinle’ Yoruba; I spoke a ‘conk’ Ibadan dialect with the accent to match.

At a point, it seems I decided that both speaking English and being in Lagos were anathema, and I fought & sulked like crazy when my parents took me to Lagos for a few days. I wanted my Mama ‘badan, my gayya (gala sausage rolls), and woe betide anyone who tried to get me to speak English. My favourite statement screamed at the top of my lungs was ‘Mi s’abo’ (I refuse to speak English). I am reliably informed that a tantrum ensued if I was even spoken to in English. Everyone spoke to the little tyrant (me) in Yoruba. And I always returned to my loving Mama ‘badan a few days later.

Why my parents did not just wallop the living daylights out of me is beyond my comprehension but at the time I was still the youngest, the baby, and they hardly ever saw me. Sooooooo I guess I was a trifle ‘spoiled’. Just a lil! LOL

One of my earliest memories is going exploring while my grandma searched frantically for me. My tiny fearless self was next door, busy scampering up the external staircase of of the uncompleted building to explore the flat roof of the upper floor.  Poor woman saw a situation that could easily have ended in broken limbs and a shattered skull. As she screamed in shock, I placed my hands on my hips, shook my head and said -“Ki lon se iya yi yi yi yi ke??’” “What on earth is wrong with this woman???”

Finally, my dad had enough of this state of affairs: He had two daughters – one a beautiful little well-behaved princess who spoke beautiful English, while also learning Yoruba, and then there was me - a little savage tyrant running wild! My 2.5 yr old self was packed off kicking and screaming to London. I did not return to Lagos until I was 6. By then, I could no longer speak or understand a word of Yoruba. (It took my UK relatives 2 months to get me speaking English in the UK but that’s a story for a different day).

Back in Nigeria, I was now teased endlessly whenever I tried to speak Yoruba in my ‘Oyinbo’ accent, so I stopped trying. I finally did learn to understand it, but in those days, it was unusual not to speak the language. Most kids around me could speak the language of their ancestors.

However things are very different now - a sizable minority of the middle and upper classes living in Nigeria today do not seem to mind if their kids cannot speak their traditional languages. I know it’s important to speak English well but a culture dies out or is open to being misrepresented by outsiders when a people no longer speak or understand their history.  How many Yorubas my age (from a middle class background) can recite an Oriki ‘traditional praise song’? How many Igbos of our generation still understand and can quote deep traditional proverbs? Do we understand why Chinua Achebe wrote, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which food is eaten”?

We are in danger of losing touch with our roots while insisting our kids learn French, Chinese, German, Spanish, Arabic or Japanese, et al. I understand we live in a global economy and I think it is great to have our kids speaking 8 other languages if they choose. All I say is let’s also give them a ‘grounding’ in the language of their ancestors.

As for me, it was not until a few months ago that a friend gave me the courage to begin trying out my spoken & written Yoruba - and I stopped caring about being mocked or teased. My spoken Yoruba is still pretty poor but hey, Lagos wasn’t built in a day. LOL.


Sunday, 26 June 2011


Lice.  Those abominable blood sucking creepy-crawlies nestling happily & making their home in their host's hair. The really annoying thing is Lice are head-over-heels in love with clean hair and a virgin scalp, so they'll migrate from their existing hosts to a clean head of hair as soon as they can put in a change of address!

When I was 11 or 12, we had a house-girl who came with some extra 'hair-guests' (yup, her hair was extra-crunchy! LOL.) My younger brother and I promptly caught em off her! As a typical middle-class child, I had never had or been near lice before so I had no idea why I was suddenly scratching my head vigorously. But after catching hold of a couple of strange lil blood-engorged beings on my scalp, I told my mom. BIG MISTAKE!!

4 hours of unimaginable torture soon followed.

A mixture of moth balls/camphor was added to palm oil. I watched with wondrous eyes and thought ok, the cure didn't seem to be too bad - this red-orange mixture was then spread liberally over my scalp & hair. OMG! Words cannot adequately describe the pain - I was convinced my scalp had caught fire! Till today my body still jerks at the memory. Death would have been a relief from the torment!

So a few weeks later, when I found my scalp itching again, I decided to spare my mom the pesky details of 'The return of the Mack Lice' -  NOTHING was going to make me undergo that scalp-burning experience again! Being very resourceful & independent, I spent the next week wondering how to resolve the itchy-scalp issue myself - liberal applications of undiluted shampoo were no good, but then one night as I carried out the familiar-to-every-Nigerian-child-ritual-of-spraying-the-bedrooms-at night-with-insecticide to kill off mosquitoes, a light-bulb went off  (& not because there was a power-failure). FLIT! (The brand name of the insecticide in my hand). Very logically, I reasoned that if Flit killed mosquitoes, then it should kill lice too innit??? Simplez!

It was the summer holidays so I put my extermination plan into action. I convinced my mom I wanted to keep my hair in an afro for the holidays (the usual cornrows would not have helped the death-and-eviction-of-lice-by-chemical-spray plans) and as soon as she & my dad left for work, I would whip out the Flit and douse my head liberally. This cure was carried out 2 times a day. I must say, it was very sooooooothing & cool on my scalp. ;D

Of course my poor parents were blissfully unaware of their daughter's new habit of pumping dangerous chemicals directly unto her scalp.

Despite the deadly fumes I must clearly have been imbibing, my DIY-please-dont-ever-try-this-at-home-yourself cure was a sure-fire winner. Every night after the last top-up spray dosage, I combed my hair out and watched with satisfaction as dozens of dead lice came tumbling out. But I kept the routine going for weeks as I wanted to make sure any hidden hatching eggs (yuck!) were also terminated soon as they opened their beady lil blood-sucking parasitic eyes!

The cure worked but till today I still get a minor twinge of trepidation if my scalp itches even for a brief second.

P.S Hmmm, I wonder now how many chemicals trickled through to the brain cells below! LOL

Bucky, Bukky, Buky, Buki, Bukki.

Ok, it's a tiny trivial thing but I almost find it easy to know how close a person is to me or how much a person thinks about me by the way they spell my name.

My name is Bukonla which is abbreviated to 'Bucky'. That's how I spell it anyway - traditionally it's spelled Buki, Buky, Bukky even Bukki but very rarely ever Bucky. Many Nigerians secretly believe I have come up with my version of an 'Oyinbo' spelling and immediately leap into helping me out by 'correcting' what must obviously be my extremely poor spelling. *giggle* (Oh, please do NOT call me Bukonla - I will not respond. That is reserved for very close family and the guy in my life. Call it my thing but I find it extremely presumptuous when people try to call me Bukonla when I haven't introduced myself to them as that.)

Back to Bucky - blame my parents - they brought me up to spell my name that way. All my life, I have only ever spelled it that way. All my siblings spell my name that way. Growing up, teachers back home went nuts when this little child fresh from the UK, stubbornly refused to have the spelling corrected. A Naija primary school teacher once threatened to fail me in a paper if I did not spell my name Buki when it was submitted. Y'all seen the movie Roots with 'My name is Kunta Kente??' And how he was whipped for stubbornly refusing to take on the name 'massa' gave him? All I can say is Kunta would have been proud of me. The teacher got back the test paper with Bucky defiantly scrawled on it. I passed the test - and the poor woman gave up on her version of 'teach kids how to spell their own names spelling bee'. 

In secondary school, I had a teacher who almost had an apoplexy when I refused to respond to her calling me Bukonla. I got thrashed for it on many occasions but after days of my 'selective deafness' whenever she called me Bukonla, she reported me to the Principal (or Headteacher). To  her shock (and my relief),  Head asked her why she was trying to change my name from the way my parents called me. Ok, that teacher hated me for the rest of secondary school! LOL

Our names, our identities can be intertwined. I look at my name and I see me. When I see my name spelled any other way but Bucky, while I accept it, it's feels like the person isn't talking to or about me. When a person who is not special to me, calls me Bukonla, everything within me says 'No, it is not your right to do so.'

Facebook has made me realise my teacher's 'name spelling bee' is still alive and well. Some people will respond to a status update of mine and spell my name every other way but Bucky. It kinda makes me chuckle.

Over the years, I've discovered that for my closest friends and those most accepting of me, I usually almost always become 'Bucky'. And as for folks who maybe aren't so close??? Ahhhhhh well, guess they'll keep helping out my obviously weird spelling and nudging me in the 'right' direction by showing me a 1001 other versions of the spelling of my name! *sly grin*