Learning Yoruba in diaspora

A week before Day of Languages my daughters are used to Yoruba crash course, mostly due to them showing temporary interest in learning, I follow their leads on words they are interested to learn, often simple greetings and few letter words –  this, we have done for the last four years.

At 7 & 8, they should have made better improvement beyond few words and a couple of memorised songs, but I did not introduce them to Yoruba language from infant. My excuses were endless; I am the only Yoruba speaker in the family, they started nursery at six months and I don’t want additional barrier to settling in, the list goes on. Shameful, I know, nothing to brag about.

Over the years, I have realised three factors that have contributed to my girls’ interest in learning Yoruba.

Aye + Yeye with friendsFirst is the trips to my hometown where they get to play around children their own age. The longest we’ve stayed in recent years is two weeks during school holidays. I have seeing them going from sticking to family members to feeling comfortable around neighbours – all of whom speak Yoruba as their first language but for my girls’ sake these children speak English when we are around. Now, the interest is that they love to blend in speaking Yoruba (as broken as it may sound) to broaden their knowledge.

Secondly, at school both have at least 2 children in class who speak relatively well in another language other than English, French (taught at school). Day of Languages is meant to be European Days of Language but the school is supportive of all languages including those outside of Europe. Parents are invited to share knowledge of other language/s they speak. They are not only welcome, but encouraged which works well to our advantage.

I have volunteered for this event in prior years to talk briefly about Yoruba as a language, demographic, traditions and culture – fun and such a great opportunity to get a glimpse at how children behave in class.

Because language does not exists in isolation, a little insight into the traditions and culture goes a long way to trigger interest, I have found.

One example is a few weeks ago when my 8year old went on a school trip to a local museum notable for its African art collections. In the evening she shared her experience of the day:

“You would not believe what happened at the museum today!”  she said

“Please share,” as the excitement is enough tip that it was good news.

At the museum was a room filled with lots of African related artefacts; drums, masks, beads etc the teacher walked around explaining each item and its significance to the group, highlighting origin of each piece – the history and cultural beliefs associated from home country.

When the teacher came to a particular piece, it was an Egungun mask (masquerade) and said it was from Nigeria.

“This time, all eyes were on me.” She said with a grin, proud that an item from Nigeria had interesting history behind it.

So the proud Yoruba girl went closer to read the caption on the mask, alas it was written in Yoruba.

“Did you give it a go?” I asked

“I did, but I scratched my head for a long time as I don’t understand.”  She replied.

Trying hard to please mates waiting patiently to see if she could translate some words – no real success that day.

Now, I speak Yoruba at home most of the time, if we have time they take notes. We have a few Yoruba children books that are nicely illustrated, also a couple of Yoruba apps. What I have found most helpful so far is me continuing to speak in Yoruba even if I have to translate, real life interaction makes a huge difference.

If I could do it again, I’d speak Yoruba to them right from birth however, it is nice to know we have a second chance and this time it wasn’t about me anymore, it is them really interested. My job is to keep the furnace of passion going.

With perseverance, in a few years they can both laugh when listening to Titi without head scratching, fingers crossed.


PS: Makupsy, as promised.

Honest conversation on eroding culture

There was a time not long ago as early as the 80s that culture is still well celebrated especially in our small towns. I witnessed this in my town, most people who participated belonged to one religion or the other but yet there was a space to celebrate what we all had in common, the language, different art forms from dance, poetry to street festivals. I used to enjoy this before everything became skataskata. 

Beautiful masks became an idol, people go into frenzy of selling them out or destroyed outright. Oh well, great time to be alive and knowing there are lots of people out there bothered by this is pleasing.

 Ms Shoneyin’s interview here about the importance of culture sums it up for me. I particularly liked what she said in 3:30 in relations to how religion has affected Nigerians profoundly in the way that we see culture today.

“…with religion and how much it sort of permeated the Nigerian people for instance you find that everything that has to do with the indigenous culture is sort of put in the same dustbin that some would put all those fetish practices…”

Nigeria – when meaning is lost in translation

Language fascinates me, more so Nigeria many languages. I sometimes wonder how tough it must have been for our lawmakers. We do have a national language, English – for me that is when it gets trickier, for one word can be translated differently depending on individual region.

In **Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country, interesting that ‘ripe’ is used to describe kola nut readiness for harvesting. In Yoruba, we say ‘mature’

gbó – mature

pọ́n – ripe

In Yoruba, ‘ripe’ is used to describe mainly sweet fruits such as banana, orange, papaya etc. mostly fruits that change colour from green to yellow. Now I can see Chinua Achebe saying there is obvious discolouration in kola nut pod, suggesting it is ripe, hence the word ‘ripe’ was used. But because kola nut fruit itself is bitter, for the Yorubas, the slight change in pod colour is irrelevant.

It is a relief to know am not the only one confused about the difference between ‘ripe’ and ‘mature’ of fruits.

More interesting is the fact that we have national exams, how do we come to agreement of acceptable English translation for the same word? That must be a real battle for the exams coordinators, or unfair mark downs for students depending on the markers’ understanding of the word.

In the late 1980s, there was a pilot project going around,  the idea was that all Nigerian secondary school students  must learn another Nigerian language different from their local area – all subjects except local language is taught in English.

That was a brilliant idea.

My area being Yoruba had a choice between Igbo and Hausa to start with, in the end we were given a Hausa teacher. The idea was that at least one year of Hausa and another year of Igbo during the years in secondary school, so we get introduced to the basics of other Nigerian languages.

The pilot study lasted for a year, that much was true. Our teacher was a young man from Sokoto, only in the southwest because of his new teaching appointment.

The study was for just my year group, I was in senior secondary school one with 4 classes, at least 30 students each, myself and mates benefitted from one year Hausa lesson. I really enjoyed the class. Till today, whenever opportunity arises, I use the few words I learned as ‘ice breaker’ to ‘show off’ my knowledge of Hausa or lack of it.

Coincidently, years later I ended up living in the same house with my then Hausa teacher, Mr Sule. It was only then that I got to know him a bit better. The study had a rocky start but there were positive feedback to show there is a need to make language compulsory in schools, however, further funding met huge resistance from our lawmakers. Mr Sule is now a Policeman.

Today, learning other Nigeria language different from the local one is not mandatory in schools. For the most part, Yoruba language in Yoruba schools and vice versa.

One language that most of the schools across board especially in the southwest learn is French – I wonder if we look back and take notes, would we choose Hausa, Igbo or French?


 ** There was a Country, Pg 10

Memory of Christmas Eve

My village celebrates the best Christmas Eve ever. It is the day that everyone in the village come together to celebrate in the open place – primary school field.

December 24th is the day youths who work and lived in cities and towns across the country are in the village for the holidays.

Over the years, we have saved enough money to acquire a generator to use for the night and when not in use, it is rented out to the neighbouring villages.

A month prior each household is levied to contribute towards the evening party – Club Party. Well off  families contribute above what was asked of them and some even donate drinks and other useful items for the night.

Mama Ige is an elderly woman in her 60s when she returned to the village, she had horrible wound to her shin, I don’t know more to the story than that the sore has been there for a long time and is incurable (illness is incurable in Nigeria when no money to take to hospital). The wound smells really bad so Mama Ige is pretty much isolated most of the time.

On December 24th, she belonged so is everyone.

I remember her once contributing fire woods to help with the cooking and later on showed up in the field for a couple of hours – Everyone celebrate the gift of life

The evening is all about eating, drinking (mostly soft drinks) dancing and singing. One of the guys a bit older than me who was a Radionic/DJ (Electrician) would bring all his equipment for the night, and take the lead – we were all proud of Samuel, as he always introduces new town’s slangs and new releases at the party.

The night started at 8pm with parents sat in front row and a group doing traditional dancing in the front to entertain followed by a selected elder to speak on behalf of everyone to thank the lord that we all together again by grace.

From 9pm most elders are back in their homes leaving the youths to dance the night away. Music is all secular pop songs.

My father and a few others don’t go to sleep, they’d hung around in front of their houses to safe guard us. My parents house is directly opposite the field where the party is taking place so my old man sees it all.

For about a week, my village is filled up, lots of visiting and greetings and news from across the country – very lively atmosphere.

By December 30th, it all started to quiet down, folks leaving for town preparing for New Year parties in town – different towns mostly less than ten miles away. I have stayed back with my dad a few times – my village is mostly empty around this time, about one ninth inhabitants gone to celebrate new year but the good news is that my father tends to have big ‘catch’ of bush meat this time – not bad.

Sometimes I wished everyone stayed back but I can’t really blame people for wanting a bit of luxury of electricity and paved roads, not when I am now far away myself.

Epilepsy – Brain disorder or witches’ spell?

Yoruba myths can be fascinating.

Most of the explanations given to justify myths are very confusing and it is still confusing today even with Christianity ever present in the country – rather than shedding lights into the paths of people, religion is just making everything even more difficult to make any sense of anything.

My uncle’s wife, Esther in her 60s now, a very nice woman that I have known since I was little, hard working, minding her business most of the time. She is as normal as any human being could be except that she is epileptic.

When I was little, she used to have seizures quite regularly, because of this she is usually very guarded and only get out when needed to. She became a source shame to everyone around her. Actually, she was treated as if epilepsy is contagious. I grew up seeing loads of people periodically coming to the compound, running back and forth preparing different concoctions for her to eat. Most of these potions will be mixtures of  lizards, tortoises, chameleons, cats – just about any creatures that Yorubas consider to be too weird to eat.

When I was about 14, I asked my father what his knowledge of epilepsy was, his response was that Esther is the way she is because there are three very powerful witches behind her seizures – thankfully one is dead but they needed to keep doing sacrifices for the remaining two. Apparently, Esther offended three witches in her village when she was a wee child and the revenge is the epileptic she suffers from. I sighed as my confusion was only getting deeper.

A few years after that Esther was in my parent’s house helping to attend to guests. In the middle of this she had a seizure, within a minute or so, she was carried inside and laid on the bed. With a metal spoon in her mouth to prevent her from bitting herself, my uncle help lit a candle against her feet so she could come back to life.

In 1992, I was in Lagos working at a factory in Egbeda. This was my first real job. A few months after I stated at Emmans, Peter joined us. He was an attractive man about 6 feet tall, well mannered and wore tailored suit on his first day. I chuckled when I first saw him as his job was really to use his hands to do decent jobs quickly while he is allowed to let loose his mind to wander wherever – that was what I did. 

Just a week after he started working, he had a seizure after lunch, it was a full blown and non of us at the factory could provide any practical help, there I stood up perplexed wondered which witch he had offended and how many were they and if they have been the same one from Esther’s village, the thought I dismissed immediately as I have heard there were witches all over Nigeria, and that the Southeastern ones were the worse – they don’t forgive. Needless to say, Peter did not come back to work after the incidence – stigma prevented him.

My breakthrough on the subject came sometimes in the year 2000, I met Bosede from Abeokuta. One day we were chatting and she told me her life story of living with epilepsy, my eyes widened and wires in my brain sparkled as I wanted to hear all about the witches in Abeokuta and how her dad, being an educated and well to do managed to get witches off her back. Bosede is a devoted Christian like many Nigerians but I was eternally grateful that she told me the truth about how her parents had been incredibly helpful in given her a normal life. She was lucky, her parents were educated and they understood that epilepsy is a neurological disorder –  result of abnormal activity in the brain.

With this in mind, they sought for medical help and with prescribed medicines Bosede’s seizure was more controlled and frequency reduced. A few years ago when I ran into her,  she was with her new baby boy and was pleased to tell me she has not experienced seizure in the last few years.

I was greatly relieved that my uncle’s wife epilepsy was not from the three witches after all. Esther lives with the shame that was totally not her fault. She still does.

In today’s Nigeria epileptic patients are still treated as outcaste. Most people are not aware that they can get medical help. Medicine costs used to be so costly but I heard that it is not as expensive as it used to be. People will sort for medical help if they understand the real cause of epilepsy. Talking about this amongst ourselves, drawing on personal experiences as examples to create awareness so those suffering in silence have confident to seek help especially if they knew that their seizures isn’t caused by that old lady in the village.

Smoking ban in Lagos

Smoking ban in public places in Lagos is a positive step forward by the Lagos State government. I am more intrigued by the fact that we are talking about the effects of smoking to our health in the first place rather than fine that is associated with the ban. Enforcement of any law is a whole different issue in my dear country as it is always applied differently depending on who you are/know.

I am hopeful though as Fashola has successfully dealt with some social issues in the state – clearing Oshodi market area is a huge success in my book to mention one. It seems to me that Fashola is a forward thinking governor who cares about the the general public and our health, so hopefully many more states in the country will emulate this initiative and work together to create healthier nation.

Any positive initiative is very welcome as Nigeria goes for now, however, prioritising our actions could be a lot more effective.

Think about this – Lots more people are exposed to carbon monoxide from their generators at home, work places, markets, restaurants, pubs, churches, mosques, fire woods, factories in close proximity to towns, the list goes on than they would from cigarette.

While we are at it, please let’s do something about the bigger problem of carbon monoxide we face daily. It is only a matter of time until half of the population will be deaf from the continuous exposure to the noise from generators and of course smoke is a contributing factor associated to lung cancer but prioritising our worries would help a great deal.

I am happy that now we are wiser and more enlightened than to blame it all on the witches and wizards so when we turned deaf and or have lung cancer we know exactly where the problem originated from.

Education as a tool to empower citizens

On the train minding my business, sitting opposite me was a man in his late 70s. After staring at his tribal marks on his cheeks for a while, the silence was broken. I greeted Mr Ajala in Yoruba and so it all began.

Two Nigerians meeting for the first time bonding, talking with serious look on their faces, regardless of their age, tribe or religion, they were undoubtedly talking about the state of Nigeria. Usually, we tend to agree that the system has failed us and we yawn for change in all ways, however, after the talk, the shout, the anger, we’d retrieve back to our shells accepting that we could not effect any change and we will once again call on to God to help us as if God has not done enough by given us abundant natural resources, huge man power and brains to help us manage them well.

Of course God is not crazy and he has no time to waste with the likes of people who refused to learn and help themselves.

For the next one hour,  Mr Ajala and I chatted away, I learned lessons about Nigeria history that I have never heard before from the horse’s mouth. Mr Ajala was one of the beneficiaries of generous scholarship in the 1960s. He said at the time there were only few secondary schools in Lagos State. In his final year at secondary school, his parents received a letter to say their son has been selected to study at University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

At the time Chief Obafemi Awolowo believed strongly that education is the key to a sustainable society. He pushed hard to get as many people to study outside the country in Yoruba at least so they could come back and teach the rest of us how to live and work together as a civilised society.

He had a big dream, he knew, innovation, productivity, efficiency could never be achieved without proper education. Mr Ajala said part of the deal at the time was that they must return to the country at the end of their courses, the deal he said all of them were glad to abide by as there were jobs waiting at home.

We have the power to make changes, let’s keep talking amongst ourselves and find a way to get our points across.

Below is Fela Kuti lyrics – Sorrow tears and blood as gentle reminder.

Further reading on Chief Obafemi Awolowo on his love for well educated nation. Here

This ted talk by Saki Mafundikwa of Zimbabawe is worth listening to. A much needed reminder that Africa has the ability to make things happen only if we look within. More personally, for Nigeria and her government  – food for thoughts.

L’ede Wa

Okan ninu ohun ti mo fe gbiyanju lati se ni kiko awon itan mi ni ede Yoruba. Eyi ma komi lati ranti ipa nla ti ede ko ni igbe aye wa. Bi o tilejepe, ni aye ode one, opo eko ti a ko ni ile iwe lo je ni ede oyinbo, sibesibe iwulo ede wa ko see fi owo gba si apa kan.

O da mi loju pe ti mo ba te are mo ati maa ko ede wa lojoojumo, yio mo mi lara lati te siwaju.

Loni mo fe ko nipa orin ewi ti a ma n ko nigba ti mo wa lewe:



Mo ri kini kan loju orun

To ba dale a tan yoyoo

Kini a ti n pe kini naa?

Irawa to too to, irawo

Iru iyanu ki wa leyii

Lati mo bi o se n tan

O n dan yinrin, yinrin, o n dan