Yorùbá Girl Found

kàn náà níláti ní gbogbo tirẹ̀ kí ó tó lè l 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 New York. The content of the conversation was not

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

your arms.

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 “Nigeria” and portions of Benin, Togo,

Ghana, Sierra Leone) in West Afrika to Cuba, Brazil,

Trinidad, and even St. Lucia. The Yorùbá religion, Ifá, is practiced

to varying degrees in all of these places, and in parts of Mexico, Venezuela

and Argentina. The vast majority of the Yorùbá nation

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 U.S.

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 West Afrika,

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, “Nigeria

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. é ẹ lè ká èdè yín? Pẹ̀lú àwọn àmì náà? é 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)

Written

for Omo Naija Magazine, Winter ’08

(omonaijamag.com)

Written by
Ololade Siyonbola
Join the discussion

12 comments
  • Thank you all so much for your marvelous support! Your words always encouraged me (I know I’m late, SORRY! but better than never 🙂 Please keep in touch with me via the Yoruba School I started with my Yoruba husband several years ago. http://www.yorubaculture.com or email me at rukayat [a] gmail [dot] com

    @ Tokunbo, If you’re teaching your daughters still, I may have some recommendations from products out there.

    I also just completed my first book of poems, including several original Yoruba poems 🙂 I’m very excited about this. If you join the mailing list on the Yoruba school website, I will be able to send you info once it’s available in bookstores and online.

    Love & Light to all of you!

  • Wow. Mo gbadun eyi o. Language indeed is a powerful thing. At the rate Nigeria is going with becoming fully Westernized- “contemporary Nigeria” as I term it, I fear language may completely lose its importance. Great article.

  • Just want to let you know that this is a great article. I’m so proud of you. Keep on educating our people. Excellent.

  • Great! Great! Ruka. I’m glad to know that we still sister that still keep the Yoruba flame burning. Keep spreading the word. I love your work.

  • Hi Ruka. thanks so much for educating our people on the importance of keeping our heritage alive and it’s continuity. I am a yoruba girl who resides in Dubin in Ireland. I speake the language to my children, though, they are trying to be speaking it, but there is no word u say to them in yoruba that they don’t understand. This actually gives me JOY!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • I don’t know how and why I stumbled onto this article, but I am glad I did. As a Yoruba girl, with Hausa roots. I suffered from an identity crisis. I would always try to learn Hausa and not Yoruba. You see, I grew up in Jos, then Lagos. It was all very confusing for me, until I started my university studies here in the US. Now that was when the interest and the love of the language started to grow. It would always amaze me that my Hausa and Igbo friends, no matter how well spoken they were, (English wise) seemed to always know thier own languages. Hausa was very easy because there is not as much culture in the language as Yoruba, you are right the more you get to learn, the more hunger and thirst you derive which in turn makes you want to learn more. I am happy to say, I am embracing my beautiful culture, poetic language, and my gorgeous curves!! What other culture has this?? Good work!!

  • I started crying after I read your article. I am a 37 year old father of two young girls born in America who does not speak a word of Yoruba because I failed to teach them.

    Your article highlighted my failure in this regard and I lamented at the loss my daughters would have when they are grown and they cannot appreciate all what Yoruba means the history behind Yoruba, the history of their father and where he is from.

    This article stirred the most emotion in me ever. It is strong and powerful. In my mind it is as powerful as MLK I have a dream speech.

    I will print copies so that I can read it again from time to time. I also resolve to start teaching my daughters the language of their forefathers. Thank you Rukayat for opening my eyes. E se pupo mo dupe.

  • Dear Rukayat

    I love your article so much. Great work. I’m happy to know that our brothers and sisters abroad are learning the language.

    I am a Yoruba guy born and bred in Nigeria, fully ‘fed’ with Western Education. But, I tell you. I can never forget home. I was in Swiss last October and for every moment I spent there, I miss my home very dearly. Each time I heard Yoruba on the street of Zurich, I became over joyed.

    One thing? You did mentioned in your article that your Yoruba teacher is a Puerto Rican. If I may ask, do they speak good Yoruba in Puerto Rico? If Yes, that is great, because in Yorubaland, we have this general believe that our brothers in Diaspora are losing touch of the language.

    I’m proud to say Ifa is our own Bible. Everything about us as a people is in it.

    E se. O dabo!

  • I loved your article. I am African American, and my husband is an Ijaw. He is also fluent in Yoruba and English. I am still waiting for my husband to join me from lagos, for we are at the point where we are waiting for his interview to be schedueld at the Lagos, Nigerian Embassy.

    He has been teaching me Ijaw words for a while (IM, e-mail, and cell phone), and we talk in Ijaw as much as I currently know. However, I want to speak entire sentences in Ijaw and to know what others are saying in Ijaw when I go back to Nigeria. Next, I want to master Yoruba, for those are the languages that my husband is fluent in. I admire his ability to switch between one language and the next (he has Yoruba friends).

    Great article!