My spoken Yoruba is about as good as my spoken Mandarin – non-existent. Somehow I miraculously developed the ability to understand it but, I still fumble when it comes to verbalising my thoughts in Yoruba. It saddens and frustrates me. It somehow makes me feel less ‘Nigerian’, less ‘authentic’ than I should especially, around other young Nigerians. Very often I can hear the reply in Yoruba in my mind but I just default back to English.
I was born and raised in the UK. And I’m in no way lamenting about that. My parents created a wonderful life for us here, where we have been given opportunities and access to things that we may not have had in Nigeria. But, that has meant that the little I know about Nigeria has come from heresay, Professor Google, countless Nollywood movies and fading memories from a family trip to Nigeria when I was 10. Nevertheless, my limited knowledge created a deep and intense love affair with my culture. I fell in love with the colours, the vibrancy, the food, and the music. God knows I love our music; the melodies from King Sunny Ade and Sir Shina Peters are the soundtrack of my childhood. Even now, no party feels complete without ‘afro juju’.
I used to blame my parents. In fact, I still do (love you mum and dad) because they didn’t speak Yoruba to us, they spoke it to each other. It was far down on their list of priorities – there were school exams, music lessons, parties, church and just life in general. It was also difficult in 80s to be black let alone, be African. Perhaps my parents were protecting us from persecution and prejudice. From what I heard, mistaking a Caribbean person for an African was deemed as an insult. It was perceived that Africans were somewhat backward and uneducated. The creative fraudulent activities of some Nigerians in the late 80s and 90s didn’t help this case. Who in their right mind would want to be associated with that?!
To further compound matters, my maiden name wasn’t terribly long and did not set off the ‘here comes an African’ and then my parents chose to give me a very traditional English first name. So, I didn’t face the torture of hearing a teacher butcher my name. Although, I do remember there was a time in primary school, I decided to write all my names on the front of my exercise book. I clearly remember the teacher spitting them out of his mouth as if he had just sucked on five lemons. I was completely mortified and shuffled to the front of the class to the sounds of my friends’ laughter and howls of ‘is that your real name?’ Real name?! I didn’t realise my first name was an imposter. I wanted to tell them it wasn’t a place holder. I was proud of all my names – both the English and the Nigerian. I had learned the meanings of my Yoruba names and was proud that my parents had carefully chosen a name that they felt reflected the person I would become.
Times have changed now. I teach in an urban school in London where there are hundreds of African children – Nigerian children, who are embracing their names and correcting all the teachers (even me) on their mispronunciation.
On a weekly basis, I am asked where I am from and I refuse to tell them. Not because I am ashamed (even only they knew) but because I don’t want them to use that as an avenue to be disrespectful. Can you imagine handing back assignments and student saying ‘Why now, Aunty? This is supposed to be an A and not a B?!’ Or the horror of them meeting someone, who knows someone’s aunty’s uncle’s best friend (and you know us Nigerians get around) to discuss the details of my life. Already, I had a student offer to cook for my husband when my holiday photos accidentally projected onto the screen – the horror! Anyway – I digress…I question though where this sudden peak in Nigerian pride has come from?
Is it the global accessibility of information that the rise in social media has produced? Instagram, Blogs, Twitter and Facebook are platforms which depict a totally different life from the potbellied children. Is it the fact that the western world is slowly changing their view of Africa? Musicians like DBanj and WizKid are doing a great job of shining the light on Nigeria. We’ve had Beyonce dressed in Ankara and her homegirl Michelle Williams remaking a Nigerian gospel anthem.
The students I teach are so proud of their names and their nationality but, they don’t seem to be holding onto their language with the same tenacity. Is it the same beloved AfroBeats that causing this? I’m concerned whether we’re just producing an American version of ourselves, using English more than our native tongue. In the same way, there is also a slow and dangerous dilution of some of our core values. I’m finding an increasing number of our children being disrespectful to their elders, showing a serious lack of respect. Our language has a fantastic way of showing respect by changing the words we use to address our elders. Could it be that the English language has become a leveller, blurring the lines between adult and child? Let’s face it many teenagers I know, only know the Yoruba words and phrases which are linked to discipline. Doesn’t it belittle the language if it is rendered only used to communicate anger and insult? And even now, that my parent and I are passed the ‘Kuroni’waju mi!’ stage, my parents only use the vernacular when they don’t want others to be a part of the conversation. Yoruba doesn’t sound like the most romantic language but, its richness shouldn’t be devalued like this.
Having children has suddenly made me more conscious of my legacy. I’m questioning what I’m passing on. ‘Shoki’, wearing Aso Ebi and eating Jollof rice doesn’t feel like anything of substance. And yes, I understand that my view is biased but, I’ve heard that this slow selective muteness has reached Nigeria. I was shocked when I was told that there are children in Nigeria who don’t speak Yoruba. Apparently, for a number of people this is not a concern as at all levels of society – English is spoken – by politicians, teachers and other professionals. I find this really interesting as many other nations don’t follow suit. When the Indian prime minister came to London and he delivered his speeches in his native tongue. They were also colonised by the British so, we can’t use that as an excuse. One thing that rests in India’s favour is that they only have 22 languages; whereas, we have over 500! And English is apparently our official one. You could argue that English would be the most lucrative language to retain. It would open up doors for you at home and abroad.
I’ll put a disclaimer out there – I am no expert oh…these are just some random thoughts I thought I’d share. I’m just a humble mother of 2 who just suddenly came to the realisation that my son may never hear me say anything in my mother’s native tongue. I do not have an identity crisis oh. I’m not lost. I embrace my Nigerian identity and all that entails. I only use a pseudonym to protect my 9-5 career.
I was that girl who professed to avoid cooking Nigerian food because I found it time consuming. My, sometimes fussy eating, son has changed all of that; I have since discovered the speed and simplicity of whipping up Okra and Eba. With proper planning, a good mood and semi-quiet children. Even Egusi isn’t so much of a chore. Now, I take pride as I’m blending and pounding. It’s all part of the preservation of all that I am – Black, British and Nigerian. Yoruba cannot die with me and my beloved. I’m going to fight the embarrassment and shame. I’m going to start learning how to speak Yoruba. I think – I know – we need to preserve it. #YorubaRenaissance
Photo Credit: Godfer | Dreamstime.com