Ọkàn náà níláti ní gbogbo tirẹ̀ kí ó tó lè lọ déedée.
(The spirit needs to have all its parts in order that it can
do what it must.)
The hole in my soul is slowly
filling up. The journey back to Yorùbáland
is a long but moving one. I had a very
memorable conversation—in Yorùbá—with one of my fellow countrymen at the
Independence Day parade in
necessarily profound, no. However, it
was the first time that I can remember, since beginning to learn the language,
that I held a complete conversation with someone who wasn’t testing me,
questioning me or my authenticity, or teaching me the language. Quite naturally, the brother approached me,
asked where I was from, and commenced speaking to me in my
language. I understood every word he
said. No anglicisms. Quite naturally, I responded fully in Yorùbá. It felt amazing. By the end of this little nothing conversation
that changed my whole world, it felt like I had just come out of Yorùbá puberty
and become a Yorùbá Woman. When people
speak of the vibration felt when speaking this language, it is truly no
joke. Yorùbá is not like any other
language. Definitely not comparable to
any european language. You can feel it in your bones, in your skin. Your soul gets goose bumps- when you
feel it. The ancestors raise hairs on
An entire world has opened up for me, and will for you when you get to
understand what people are saying to each other in this marvelous
language. It is like finally being able
to peek into a door that was before locked unto you. At least now you can see what is going on
behind the door, though you may not get the full meaning of it all. A light is shined on it. And people are smiling and laughing,
enjoying. You’re glad you finally get to
watch them, but you really want to know what they’re laughing at.
It can be hard though, being on the in-between; when you understand
some, but not nearly enough. Not nearly
everything. And when the thoughtless
make fun of you, and blame you for your parents’ mistake, you might smile it
off, but it does hurt.
It may at times feel like a constant cloud over your head. But of course, it is simply motivation. And when they compare a six-year-old’s Yorùbá
to yours and pick yours apart, it can be frustrating. But just enough for you to get your books out
and study some more. The things you
learn, they blow your mind. Gaps are
filled in. Gaps that you didn’t even
know were there.
‘Yorùbá’ is actually not a Yorùbá word, but is
derived from the Hausa word Yaariba, what they originally called us. In the Yorùbá language, the people are
referred to as Ọmọ Káàárọ̀ o-ò-jíire, or Ọmọ
Odùduwà; and the language èdè Káàárọ̀ o-ò-jíire. The translation of ‘Káàárọ̀ o-ò-jíire’ means ‘Good morning, did you rise well?’ As we love to greet—there is a greeting for
every occasion, every situation you can think of owns its own greeting—hence
the name of our language and our people is very telling. ‘Ọmọ’ means ‘descendant of’. Odùduwà is the common ancestor for all
Yorùbá people; thus all would be his descendants. The Yorùbá Nation is cross-continental,
numbering approximately 40 million people from Yorùbáland (Western “
Trinidad, and even
to varying degrees in all of these places, and in parts of
outside of The Continent was cruelly displaced to their current locales during
the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but there is of course also the significant
immigrant population of the
and other countries throughout the world.
Of all Afrikan languages, Yorùbá is second only to Swahili in its
popularity among Diaspora Afrikans seeking to return to their roots. The Yorùbá religion, Ifa, is by far
the most popular religion among this group of people, recognizing that Lukumi,
Santeria, Orisa are all rooted in Ifá. Being that the overwhelming majority of
displaced Afrikan peoples were abducted from
it is probably safe to conclude that an indisputably sizeable proportion of
Diaspora Afrikans have their roots in and around modern day Yorùbáland. The depth, breadth and beauty of the Yorùbá
language are astonishing even to native speakers, often less likely to
appreciate its genius. Of the fluent
population, a small proportion can read and write the language. Of those who can, an even smaller proportion
can use the correct orthography. Anyone
who schooled in Yorùbáland, “
past elementary age has heard ‘dòremí’ before. But how many can break it down for you? How many can teach it? What is the real reason that Yorùbá people
lose patience when seriously trying to teach the language?
Yorùbá is a powerful language.
Both the spoken language and the culture are born out of the religious
tradition. Why do we kneel to greet our
elders? Out of respect? Why do we not give and receive with our left
hand? Respect again? But where did these norms originate? The Yorùbá people have existed for thousands
of years, right? Was the religion alive
back then? Absolutely. Was the culture alive back then? Absolutely. Was the language? Yes.
Is there a trinity? Is it
possible that a people’s culture can precede their religion? Or vice versa? Is it even possible for one to precede the other?
The idioms, the metaphors, the proverbs. They are powerful. The depth and breadth of proverbs alone
rivals that of the Christian Bible and The Koran. We should be grateful for the ones that have
been written and recorded without forgetting that there is still yet much left
to capture. Yorùbá people don’t just say
‘wedding’, we say ‘ìgbéyàwó’, the carrying of a wife. Or how about ‘E ku ijọ́ mẹ́ta’, I greet you for three days (of not seeing you). The english would just say ‘long time, no
see’. My favorite is ‘inú mi dùn’,
‘I’m happy’. Really it is saying ‘my
insides are sweet’. Poetry. One of the first proverbs my mother taught
me: ‘Bí ọmọdé ba l’așọ bí àgbà, kò lè l’ákísà bí àgbà’, teaches that if
a child has as many clothes as an elder, he can never have as many rags.
The language is living. Every
language is its own organism. Yorùbá, as
any other language, requires a certain amount of attention in order to
maintain. She requires even more attention to properly grow and develop. Language naturally changes as the people use
it, picking up new words, dismissing some, misusing others. Language lives in culture, culture lives in
language, and one upholds the other. The
two are inseparable. Especially in a
culture like ours where so much history lives within the oral tradition.
Anglicism is defined as when words like ‘skuulu’ (school), ‘Tusidee’
(Tuesday), ‘keresimesi’ (Christmas), ‘sobujeeti’ (subject) are described as “Yorùbá
words”. Such “words” are derived from anglophone
languages and historically snuck into daily use with the Yorùbá people. To someone like me, they may have once been a
blessing because they were the secret to figuring out what my mother was
talking about. When you pick out enough english
words, you might be able to more easily deduce some of what is being said. However, when such words are used in place of
the actual Yorùbá words, the language dwindles down to a barebones skeleton
held up by its anglicisms. Most of the
time, there is a Yorùbá word that can be used; it may just be too much of a
mouthful. “Mo n try” is an anglicized
“I’m trying”. But how many of you would
use “Mo ń gbìyànjú”? You should try.
Other than the spoken word, languages develop in their written
form. The Yorùbá language can certainly
boast of a body of novels and written work, however in order for these works to
truly affect the spoken use of the language, my people will first have to learn
to read. Ṣé ẹ lè ká èdè yín? Pẹ̀lú àwọn àmì náà? Ṣé ò le o? And of course this body of work
is in need of a “freshness” injection.
How about more of our writers writing in their native tongue and
contributing beauty and depth to it in written form like today? Not that the language is
lacking in either, but as a people we must continue to deepen and strengthen
it. On paper.
Learning the language has been a hell of an experience. For a greedy, hungry knowledge-seeker, the
realization that no one can know everything about the language is an itchy and annoying
one. But you come to terms with this,
especially when you can’t seem to remember that group of vocabulary words that
are all spelled the same but pronounced differently. But the beauty of the language makes you
hunger and thirst for more. When “what
does that mean?” turns into “kíni ìtúmọ̀ yẹn?” and “how do you say…?” becomes “báwo l’a ṣe ń sọ…?” you start
to feel good.
There is an impatience that is born in the process, the distance,
because you look forward to the day when no one will believe that you ever
didn’t speak the language. To the day
that you dream and think in it and she reinstates herself as your mother tongue
once again either after 16 years, or 160 years.
For a poet, a language with so many built in idioms, so much metaphor, so much melody, so much story, analogy, history, depth– is simply irresistible. For
someone spiritual, a language with so much prayer, so much blessing, so much praise,
worship and power will take you to a place you hadn’t known
existed for you, in this life. So much
story, so much music, so much wisdom, so much love, so much family, so much love, that you just can’t stop.
So you get to class early, and you stay late. And when your teacher, a Puerto Rican Babaláwo
with more depth of knowledge on the language and people than probably the
president himself, tells you that you pronounced something correctly, well then
you start to smile. And your alighted
spirit is finally happy that you are actually getting it and enjoying it and decides to take you dancing around the room, all smiles. And your ancestors decide that they’ll help
you even more with the language, so that things will begin to stick even
faster…then the hole in your soul begins to fill…the completion of your spirit
makes everything else okay.
And you’re counting the minutes to your next class, studying note cards
on the train, talking to yourself in the language like a madman and laughing all the while, saying I’m actually learning Yorùbá!
‘A kì í gbàgbé ibi tí a ti bẹ̀rẹ̀
nítorí a kò lè gbàgbé ara wa; a kò lè gbàgbé ibi tí a ń lọ’
(We don’t forget where we came
from so that we can’t forget who we are and where we are going)
for Omo Naija Magazine, Winter ’08