Search This Blog

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.


No comments: