I could hear my Dad call my name a short distance away as I chatted excitedly with my new friend. I paused to deliberate for a second on whether to answer him, then shrugged my shoulders as I continued my conversation. Hopefully, he wasn’t calling me for anything serious and would let me be.
A short while later, I felt someone tug at my hand. I tore my gaze away from my companion in mild irritation, only to look up into my father’s face. It was my first resumption day in my new secondary school. I had spent the previous term as a day student in a Model college in Lagos, but my parents had been insistent on their desire to have me school in a Federal Government College. Their wish had been granted. So here we were, resuming for the second term of J.S.S 1 as a boarding student in a Unity College in the South West.
I was excited for my own personal reasons. The day had gotten off to a good start; we had gotten to the school premises without any negative incident, my registration had been hitch-free, I had settled in nicely and was already making new friends. All that was left was for my parents to head home, as I couldn’t wait to start this new independent phase of my life. The expression on my Dad’s face showed that he was about to say something very important. He gestured for us to sit down and proceeded to grasp my palms in his.
Now that he had my undivided attention, he began to speak, “I just noticed something worrisome, it seems like it’s common for people to converse in Pidgin English and Yoruba here.”
My eyes were narrowed in confusion, I didn’t understand what my father’s discovery had to do with me. Yes, I had noticed that one or two people had tried to initiate conversations with me in those languages. However, I had politely explained to them that I didn’t understand Pidgin English and Yoruba, and they had been gracious enough to revert to English.
He continued his speech, “I know you don’t understand these languages, but you need to ensure that it remains that way. Once you start relating with people in Pidgin English and other indigenous languages, you start to erode your mastery of English. I don’t think that it will be ideal for you to go down that route. So I’ll advise that you don’t join your friends in speaking them.”
I nodded earnestly in agreement. My father wasn’t one to just issue orders, he would always explain the rationale behind his instructions – and they always seemed sensible to me.
I had grown up in an English-only speaking home. It was an unwritten law, no indigenous language of any kind was spoken in my house. All my paternal and maternal relatives took great care to ensure that there was no deviation from that rule anytime they came visiting. Whenever my mother received non-compliant visitors, we the kids would be asked to leave the living room for our bedrooms so she could chat freely with them.
The end result was that I had grown to be quite proficient in English but devoid of any understanding of my mother-tongue. We left quite a few of my parents’ friends perplexed when they would speak to us in our native language during their first interaction with us, only to be replied with a blank stare. My maternal grandmother was constantly tearing her hair out in frustration over our inability to converse with her in our dialect. My father could foresee the benefits derived from the years of strict conditioning going down the drain if I decided to embrace the openness of expression in my new environment, hence his request.
Days turned into weeks – weeks that came with new-found knowledge. I discovered, to my chagrin, a short while after my parents left, that boarding school wasn’t what I had envisioned it to be. It was tough. The bullying was bad, I was despondent and constantly longed for my previous sane life.
However, two things still remained constant from that fateful resumption day: my new friends and the advice that my father had imparted to me. By the end of the second term, everyone in school knew that in order to strike and maintain a conversation with me, English was the acceptable language. Attempting to do otherwise was at your own peril. I would peruse the offender from head to toe before correcting him/her in a snotty manner about my language choice.
My school mates good-naturedly let me be, although they considered me an oddity. By the beginning of the next term, I had even won over some converts – my impressive vocabulary and consistent top scores in English tests/exams being my testimonials. All was well, until I fell victim of a hazing incident one night.
It was just after night prep, I had gone to the next dorm room to visit a friend, only to walk smack-dab into a raucous group of girls. I hurriedly exchanged greetings with them, and proceeded to stroll into my bunk corner of interest when the ring leader called out to me. I rolled my eyes inwardly before turning back to face her. She was notoriously funny, her brand of humor not being one I particularly cared for. “Please ehn, we are trying to get to the bottom of something. I’d really love for you to help us resolve it”, she said with a wry smile on her face.
“What’s the issue?” I queried dispassionately.
“Nothing serious jare”, she replied, “We are working on our Yoruba assignment and need your help.”
I didn’t need to think before I countered her, “But you are aware of the fact that I don’t know Yoruba nau?”
“Yes, I do.” She acknowledged as she pointed to a friendly face in the group, “Don’t worry, Bisi will translate it to English for you.”
“Okay then, what is it?” I responded as I visibly relaxed, Bisi was someone I could trust.
She proceeded to read out of a book, “So the first question is, shey ori e pe?” I looked to Bisi to explain what the girl had just said.
“She’s asking whether you are sick”, Bisi disclosed.
“Oh! I’m not”, I replied.
The girl repeated the question, “Shey ori e pe?”
I answered confidently with a bold “No!”
As if on cue, that section of the room erupted in loud laughter. I took a mental step back as I scanned their faces. Their reaction was baffling to me. What could be so funny about my answer to a simple question? I also couldn’t understand the need for my help, the question was quite basic. Their chieftain could sense my confusion, “Don’t mind them, they are just excited that you are engaging us in Yoruba, just ignore them.”
She continued, “So the next question is, sho ma fe were?” Bisi eagerly supplied the translation, “Would you want to marry a wealthy man?”
“Why not? Who wouldn’t want to?” I retorted with a questioning tone in my voice.
“So, you mean to say that o le fe were?” the girl queried.
“Yes of course! It’s not a problem”, I replied.
The crowd, which had grown considerably larger by now, dissolved into further laughter. The night went downhill from there. By the time my friend came to rescue me from my mischievous classmates, I had more than humiliated myself with my numerous ignorant answers. I spent the better part of the week stewing in anger from the incident.
Yes, I was unhappy that I was now the butt of jokes in the hostel. But more than anything, I detested the fact that ‘they had used my head’. I resolved within myself not to let the situation recur, and so began the quest to become well versed in Yoruba. Because of the events of that fateful night, I started by learning all the abusive words in the dialect. I was lucky to have taken that approach. I firmly believe that it’s the easiest/fastest route to go when learning that particular language.
By the beginning of the next term, none of my classmates could pull a fast one on me using Yoruba as their weapon. However, I was unsatisfied. I decided to study for the upcoming mid-term assessment test. I was determined to prove myself. The result came out weeks later, and not only did I pass, but it also turned out that I was the highest-scoring female in my class.
The news spread like wildfire about how an Igbo girl had trumped her classmates (even the ones who hailed from Yoruba states) in the recent Yoruba mid-term test. It didn’t matter that I had corrected everyone numerous times in the past about how I wasn’t Igbo. “See ehn! If you are not Yoruba or Hausa, then you are Igbo! Igbo, Delta, Calabar, Edo o! Nkan kan na ni gbogbo yin” they would retort in their usual carefree manner.
Now that I had bested them in their own game, I reverted to my usual nonchalant disposition. I continued to flunk my Yoruba tests and exams. After all, I had shown everyone that I could ace the subject if I wanted to, it was just that I couldn’t be bothered to do so. However, it turned out that I still held a flicker of interest in the language. I found myself staying back more often in the living room when my mother entertained Yoruba speaking visitors. I would listen to my mum gossip with her siblings in their native tongue. Their variant of Yoruba had a musical ring to the ears, the different vowels they used to form their words lent it an exotic feel. My younger sister had also, at that time, discovered Yoruba in her secondary school. Together with our Grandma, we would stay back in our room at times to speak the forbidden language. It was one of our earliest secret rebellions.
We would listen to Mama reading from her Yoruba bible, laugh at each other’s botched pronunciation of a word, and then eagerly seek the correct sound pattern from her. It turned out that my father was seriously bugged about seeing red ink every term in my report sheet due to my dismal scores in Yoruba. When I showed up with the usual ‘F’ grade for the umpteenth time in S.S.S.3, he decided that he had had enough. There and then, he declared that Yoruba would now be the sole language of communication at home.
The subsequent weeks came with marked adjustments and bouts of teasing laughter. For my sister and I, it was quite easy to transit to this new communication style. Not so much for my brother. Till tomorrow, he still speaks the language with a funny Egun accent. I also had a score to settle. I had discovered, to my greatest horror, that for some years now, the sentences a shop boy in my neighborhood store usually uttered to me in Yoruba were quite unkind. Now that the ban had been lifted by my Dad, the need to pretend not to understand him no longer existed.
The next time I popped in at the store, I made sure to go through the usual drill: I listened quietly as he made his usual small talk laced with snide remarks to me. I smiled awkwardly as he cracked cruel jokes about me to the amusement of his friends while he packed my purchases and gave them to me. He stretched out his palm to me for payment and boy, did he get paid! I had preloaded my arsenal with the most abrasive and insulting Yoruba words which I proceeded to dole out to him lavishly. After I was done tongue-lashing him and his cohorts, I demanded an apology – which meant I wouldn’t pay him for the groceries in my hand. Till we moved out of the area, he never looked me in the eye again.
A few years back, I had an eye-opening conversation with a colleague. Her little brother had resumed for his first day at school without knowing or understanding one single English word. His shocked class teacher had relayed her disappointment about this to his mother in a condescending manner when she came to pick him up at the close of school. His mom had retorted indignantly about how all her older children had equally started primary school with no knowledge of the English Language and had always ended up being honour roll students. She rounded up by pointing out that it was the teacher’s job to teach the four-year-old English Language, while she would make sure her son knew his mother tongue.
I listened in stunned silence as my colleague relayed the incident. I had long since realized that my father was no King Solomon, but I couldn’t help but literally shake my head thinking about how he had goofed big time on this one. My colleague’s command of Queen Elizabeth’s language was impeccable. She was one of the few people who could spot when I made mistakes in my pronunciation/use of a word and subsequently correct me appropriately. The only thing that gave her away as not being a native speaker of the language was her sexy Hausa accent. I knew practically zilch when it came to my dialect. A stranger could sell me in my village and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea. How then could I claim to know my culture when I lacked even the most basic connection to it?!
All these because there was a need for me to gain mastery of an official language – the one spoken by my country’s colonial masters. And here was this self-assured lady who could converse with ease in her native tongue and more than hold her own in a formal setting! I let my mind register this painful fact and then wept internally for what could have been.
Thankfully, my demographic accounts for less than 10% of the country’s population, so none of our indigenous languages will be popping up on the list of endangered languages any time soon.
However, when I look around and observe the next generation in my circle – bright-eyed kids with their blue passports and Italian/French exotic first names – I find myself tempted to ask, “What makes you Nigerian?!”