Native Tongue

by Ola Osaze

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

It was the summer of 2010 at the height of World Cup fever on an unusually slow afternoon at Festac Grill, a Nigerian restaurant sandwiched between an empty lot strewn with refuse and a car repair shop. This working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, whose streets were desolate at night, was busy during the day. At the repair shop, black and brown men in blue overalls peered into hoods of cars and slid underneath them to poke at their bellies. A man and I were waiting for our takeout in the dim restaurant. Its peach-coloured walls were lined with haunting carved wood masks and  canvasses drenched in vivid hues of blues, reds, and yellows. The aroma of goat meat pepper soup and ogbono thickened the air. Through tall black speakers sequestered in the corners of the oblong room, 9ice serenaded us with Mu Number. On one side of the room, mounted at the centre of the wall, was a giant flat screen on which a football match was live. A few male patrons sat facing the screen, their fingers poised in midair clasping soup-soaked balls of iyan.

“Ah ah! He should have scored, abi?” said one of them, dark like me, with a silhouette that reminded me of my father. Our conversation began in pidgin, inflected with more and more Yoruba.

“What do you mean you don’t speak your language,” he asked, a shadow of pity darkening his face. “You should know how to speak your language. Didn’t your parents speak it at home?”

He raised an incredulous eyebrow and rested his hand on the counter. When I didn’t answer right away, he turned to face me and get a good look at the Yoruba and Edo kid who could barely carry on a conversation in either language. I did not know what to say to him: Do I say what I usually said, that, yes, my parents spoke multiple languages at home, but only to each other and not to us kids? That we were discouraged from speaking our languages? That we were discouraged from even speaking pidgin because, according to them, “that’s how bush people communicate”? Do I talk about how, despite spending the first fifteen years of my life in Nigeria, I barely know the place? That during that time, when I wasn’t away at boarding school, I only ever saw the compounds of our homes, the interiors of our chauffeured cars? Do I tell him about the vice-like grip our parents, particularly my mom, had on us, and the paranoia undergirding it?

“No, I don’t speak Yoruba.”

The man shook his head, his pity looking more like sorrow. He grabbed his plastic bag, in which were tupperware containing fufu and egusi, off the counter and sauntered out of the restaurant. I looked at the slim, dark woman at the cash register. Her ponytail was slowly coming undone and sweat beaded her forehead. Just beyond her was the kitchen where, through the glass panel of the door, I could see two older women in head ties, bent over the sink washing something. The cashier placed a bag of tupperware filled with my goodies on the countertop. I felt certain that she was silently judging me.

“$14.62 please?” she said.

Her eyes seemed to ask me the same questions the man had. I stared back for one second, trying to summon an unashamedness I did not feel. Failing, I lowered my gaze and fished money out of my pocket to pay her.

Yoruba, the language of my father’s people who are from the western region of Nigeria, is spoken by more than twenty-two million people within Nigeria and in other countries like Benin, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, Cuba, Saint Lucia, Brazil, Granada, UK, and USA. This language — spoken by the people in his village of Saki and those of Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, and other Yoruba states in Nigeria — is part of the Niger-Congo group of dialects.

My mother’s people are of Edo state in southwestern Nigeria. They are a people who can trace their lineage back thousands of years, a people that used to be called Igodomigodos, before being renamed the Edos by Oba (the Edo word for ‘King’) Eweka I. Their language, also called Edo, is of the Volta–Niger subgroup of languages also within the Niger-Congo family.

The eyes through which I see the world, my habits of thought, and the languages with which I dialogue with the world are an amalgamation of my parents’ ethnic and personal histories and a reality which mandated that English take precedence in our household.Though I was born in Port Harcourt, my family bounced around a lot during my childhood. Dad’s job took us from Port Harcourt to Warri to Kaduna to Kano to Abuja to Lagos to Ibadan back to Port Harcourt. Through all these geographic changes, the one constant was language; between my parents and their children, that language was English. This is why I later had to learn about the prevalence of Yoruba-speaking peoples worldwide, and Edo’s position in the world of African languages, from the pages of Omniglot.com and Wikipedia rather than from the mouths of my mother and father.

I spent much of my time in Port Harcourt, a city of thousands of ethnic groups and tens of thousands of expatriates. Two worlds collided in my home. In one, we were similar to an aristocratic British family where children were banished from the dining table for such atrocities as holding the fork in the right hand instead of the left or resting elbows on the dining table while eating. In this world, good little girls, such as I was supposed to be, curtseyed or prostrated themselves when they greeted their elders. Good little children, such as I was instructed to be, only played with other good little children of similar or higher socioeconomic status. You said “yes, please” and “no thank you,” not because of an inviolable respect and reverence for others, but because “that’s how high-class people address each other.” You were admonished if you didn’t speak the Queen’s English. Beethoven, Michael Jackson, ABBA, and Madonna comprised the soundtrack of our lives, instead of King Sunny Adé, Brenda Fassie, Tshala Muana, or Fela Kuti. Absent from our library were any books about Pan-Africanist movements and liberation struggles. Bleaching creams were stacked on dressing tables as part of an ongoing battle waged against encroaching blackness, which also included staying out of the sun and doing all manners of things to rid ourselves of the natural kinks in our hair.  

Ours was a world riddled with the persistent fear that our wealth invited the envy of all around us, and their envy brought with it untold threats and made others dangerous and unpredictable. Mother, the perpetual worrier and the one, being a woman, with the responsibility of maintaining our household, was also the steward of this wealth, her wary eyes always surveying our surroundings for danger. Any harm that befell us, the children, reflected badly on mother and spoiled her standing in the rigid social class strata in which we found ourselves.

“Don’t eat when we get to the Obbot’s house. Those bush people are so jealous of us they will poison us,” she would caution, with fire in her eyes.

“I don’t ever want to catch you playing with Idemudia. He’s below our class,” she warned about my close friend in primary school.

But it was never just Idemudia or the Obbots. It was also the Osas, the Ntuens, and many others, some of whom lived as comfortably as we did. All were suspect because in Nigeria “man must wack.” A person must survive at any cost.

Class was everything and being “high-class” represented the zenith of accomplishment. It meant the ability to bribe your way into and out of any circumstance, limitless access to the best hospitals and schools, the safest places to live, and so on. With the use of your own personal generator, it meant freedom from frequent ubiquitous power outages. Anyone endangering our social quotient in any way was cut off. These included relatives of whom we had many who lived in Benin City, their complexions  that of the ochre colour of the soil of mom’s hometown, and others from dad’s village of Saki with its surrounding jagged gray mountains.

Omniglot.com tells me “Yoruba” is spelled like so: Yorùbá. From Genii Games’ Yoruba 101 app, I learn that the Yoruba Alufabẹẹti is comprised of twenty-five letters, though Omniglot disagrees, stating there’s a twenty-sixth. The alphabet contains letters familiar to English speakers and some that are not:

“G” (sounds like “ghee”) exists as does “Gb”, which is a difficult sound to describe phonetically.

“O”  and “Ọ”, with the former sounding like “oh” while the latter is pronounced like “uh”.

“S” is distinct from “Ṣ”, with the latter sounding like “shhh”.

Of all twenty-five (or twenty-six) my favorites by far are “gb” and “kp” because of how one has  to say the first letter-sound in the hollow of your throat then roll that sound into the utterance of the second letter-sound.

“Gb” sounds like the echoing of a drumbeat, while “kp” sounds like reverberating cymbals.

When I run into Yoruba people on the streets of New York where I live or in the Nigerian restaurants dotting the city, they greet me in my language.

“Bawo ni?”

With great pride I utter the correct response memorised from the recent Yoruba language website I was poring over.

“Mo wa daadaa, o ̣se.”

Sometimes they ask me my name.

“Ki ni orukọ rẹ?”

And I am ready with the apt response.

“Mi ni Ola.”

Wanting to know just what type of Yoruba I am, they ask where I’m from.

“Nibo ni o ti wa?”

I stumble over my answer.

“Lati Oyo State,” is how I eventually respond even though Oyo State only speaks to half of my lineage. The other half, the maternal part is Edo, but Nigeria is a patrilineal society and I’ve grown used to saying Oyo first and Edo second, if I bring up the second at all.

Sometimes the exchange of hellos, of names, of places of birth would be enough to establish my Nigerian authenticity and bring these exchanges, these brief moments of recognition and connection, to a close. At other times, they were merely the ice-breaker;as my interlocutor would launch into more complicated phrases, the singsong dialect pouring out of their mouths rapidly, my lack of fluency would become evident and my long-held shame would manifest  a grim smile. I’m almost forty now, practically middle-aged, and still that grim smile is the best I can do when reminded of this cultural failing, this foreign-ness of my own native tongue.

For me, the inability to speak the language of my people represents the distance between the Nigeria I was taught to see and the one I want to see.

The Nigeria I was taught to see was one that was out to get us.

It was the world just beyond our tall cement fence, capped with sharp shards of green and brown glass. In the mornings I was chauffeured to primary school and in the afternoons I was deposited at home, back to the gilded prison of our big house and all the wealth that supposedly inspired jealousy and murderous intent in the hearts of everyone else.

“Don’t go anywhere. Come straight home,” my mother always instructed me in her clipped English, her eyes perpetually brimming with the fervour of the fearful.

She needn’t have worried because I had nowhere to go, no friends to see after school, no after-school activities in which to engage.

“It’s dangerous out there,” she’d say and I’d nod, scared witless.

Nigeria, this great, big populous mess of a country, was the “out there”, while our home was an island all on its own. Mine was a  fear I didn’t understand, with all its hidden or erased histories of who and what we were; and always, always, the refrain was “distinguish yourself from the riffraff out there. Speak English. Speak it well.” So my siblings and I spoke it well and nothing else. The Nigeria I’d love to see? One in which I wander and maneuver the streets of Port Harcourt, Lagos, Ibadan, and other cities with ease. One where I can say with the wisdom and instincts of someone enjoying the familiarity of home:

“You know that marketplace by…?”

Or

“I remember that bookstore next to the…”

Or

“I miss that buka on that street where we used to…”

The Nigeria I was taught to see was one of oil, of “how much” and “dash”.

Father was the Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation — the largest oil corporation in Nigeria at the time — in Port Harcourt. Mom owned many entrepreneurial ventures, like her Hotel Mona Lisa, one in Port Harcourt and another in Warri, both catering to the German, Lebanese, British, French, American oil expats and aspiring ogas. In contrast to our relatives visiting from the village or the so-called family friends whom mom regarded with suspicious looks, these expats were treated to our suya and our stout, and allowed to sit on the plush green sofa in our second living room —  the one reserved for “distinguished” guests, people like Chief Fawehinmi, who, every time he arrived in his gleaming black Benz, clad in a flowing brocade agbada, was accompanied by a fair-haired European, an air of entitlement wafting in with them.

Afterwards, the guests would scurry away in the aftermath of a brokered business deal. Mom and dad would retreat into their haven where the second world in our household commenced. Here, the lingua franca was not English. Here dad’s Yoruba met mom’s Edo, their mingling sounds a symphony of heavy consonants and long vowels. On a bad day, which was most days of their marriage, these sounds clashed and rang through our household. They fought in these languages. They shared secrets through them and locked us out of their esoteric world.  

As a child, I never questioned the predominance of English in our home. After all, the same values were reflected in every aspect of Nigerian society including schools, media, government, film, literature, workplaces, and in everyday interactions with strangers on the streets, market places, offices, and so on.

The languages we were taught in school were typically French (or Latin in father’s time), not even Edo or Igbo or Hausa or Ibibio or Yoruba or any one of the more than five hundred languages my people speak. Because of this nationwide complicity in the denial and relinquishing of our mother tongues, I can’t blame my parents for their choices.

Father had the backbreaking pressures of being the first member of his family to go to school.

“To get there I had to travel very far. Sometimes I had to swim there,” was the story he’d often tell. “But my father wanted me to go. He wanted a better life for me and he wanted me to make a better life possible for the rest of the family, which is why I didn’t have to work on the farm like my brothers and sisters did.”

With the benefit of a scholarship, he left Nigeria in the 1960s, swapping a newly independent country on the verge of a civil war for its colonial parent, Britain. In black and white pictures of him prior to his emigration, father’s slanted tribal marks shone, his cheeks and chin were always clean-shaven, and a shy smile lifted the corners of his lips. The pictures he later took in Birmingham showed a sullen man, his beard covering up those marks that linked him with his people. His small awkward smile only ever appeared in photographs when we were also with him.

Even after returning to Nigeria in the 1970s and ascending the ladder of oil-fueled success, he never shaved his beard again, never revealed the patterns his father, a Sango Priest, had etched into his cheeks and packed full of herbs while chanting prayers.

“You don’t know how good you have it,” mom always said to us.

She’d regale us with stories about being poor, about the father that stood in the way of her education, about traveling far from home to somewhere in Igboland to serve as a housegirl for another family. She made it to the UK somehow — we were never told how — only to be looked down upon by the whites there, only to experience the type of poverty that forced her to eat canned cat food because it was all she could afford. By the time she met my dad at a student dance in Birmingham, rage had hardened her.

“You have to be better than them, always,” she’d say to us in the rare moments when she wasn’t screaming at us or beating us.

“Them” meaning white people.

“Better than” meaning mastering things like English at the expense of our own languages.

It was in search of the better-than life that my mother brought me to America in 1991. I spent a portion of my first year in a strict Christian high-school in High Point, North Carolina. There were white students everywhere. It felt almost overwhelming to be surrounded by such uninterrupted whiteness, equally so to have to contend with the Christian curriculum (with, for instance, the prioritization of creationism in biology class) and the subtle or overt hatred of black people that was the backdrop to my day-to-day interactions with students and teachers. The principal mistook my Nigerian accent for a symptom of deficient mental capacity and decided to hold me back a year, so into the tenth grade I went. It was on the day we started reading Hamlet when I discovered that those white kids had a mangled grasp of the English language, that Africans were being forced to place a higher premium on the language than these people whose lips were fashioned to utter it in the first damn place. When we read Hamlet, I was the only one in my class who actually understood what was happening in it.

“What does it mean, Ms. Eubanks?” the students cried out, befuddled to the point of frustration, biting their tongues and cheeks in vain attempts to read the dialogue aloud.

With a smirk on my face, I showed them how. The only foreigner in that all-white class and I was more adept at the language than they were. But inevitably, every day after school I came home to a mom who roared into the phone in Edo or Yoruba, her words colliding one into another at rapid pace and not one of them meaning anything to me. She’d communicate in a cascade of indecipherable phrases, her face contorted by the familiar rage which revealed more to me than her train of words. When I wasn’t cowering in fear of her, I was mystified by every utterance, desperate to unlock their hidden meanings.

I can recognize this concerto of hard and soft tones anywhere. I’ve heard it float above the din of noise on Harlem’s 125th street in the height of summer and the force of recognition has stopped me mid-stride. I’ve heard it behind me at the vegetable aisle of the grocery store and whirled around to find a full-bellied, head-tied, round-faced, cocoa-brown woman picking her way through a pyramid of navel oranges, chattering away, regaling the person on the other side of the phone with stories in Yoruba. The gb, kp, and eh sounds, even though I don’t always know what the words they form mean, as familiar to me as air.

After twenty-four years in the U.S., I realize my parents were right: speaking English fluently is the cultural capital that, in a lot of ways, has made my economic survival possible. When I was undocumented, it meant I could pass as an American and, especially in the years after 9/11, made finding employment possible. Speaking English fluently gained me access to middle- and upper-middle class circles, and helped me navigate the interlocking worlds of academic, leftist, activist, and white spaces with relative ease.

But really I am an embodiment of myriad tongues.

In my everyday life, I speak the English the Brits brought to Nigeria, the English of the African immigrant on U.S. soil that alternates between rolling Rs and hard Ts (‘water’ versus ‘warra’), the pidgin English that is a marriage between our native tongues, urban slang and a deconstructed English, and the little bit of Yoruba and Edo I’m picking up from websites and apps. How I employ these languages of course depends on the setting.

With my Naija friends, with whom I’m usually more at ease, pidgin flows out of me unhindered:

“How body?”

“Body dey inside cloth.”

“You dey see am?”

“I dey see but I no ‘gree. Story don get k-leg, abi?”

“I no know wetin do am O. Mumu” [sucks teeth]

Speaking with co-workers — who, given the relatively few African immigrants in the U.S. nonprofit world, are usually not African — my language is American English all the way. This never feels completely comfortable. Yet I’ve had over two decades of practice:

“Hey there! How’s it going?”

“I’m doing alright.”

“Did you see that post last night?”

“Yep! And I disagree completely. The author doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Speaking with my best friend means we blend Urban English, and three different types of patois — Hawaiian, Japanese and Nigerian — creating a whole new dialect in the process:

“‘Sup”

“Not much.”

“Aiyah! Can you believe that shit? I read it and I jus wanted to maka.”

“Wahala. I dunno wetin dat person was thinking posting such ridiculousness. Onuku!”

With a rich donor — whose generosity is the life-blood of the nonprofit I work for — the formal politeness and aristocratic good manners my mama taught me informs my speech:

“Good to see you again!”

“You as well. How have you been?”

“I have been well. Thank you for asking!”

“I have been meaning to check in with you about the confusing post I read on my feed last night.”

“Yes, Mr. —, I am so glad you brought that up. Please rest assured, it is completely inaccurate and we are dealing with it.”

“Oh what a relief!”

As much as I appreciate possessing this mix of register and language, I long for Yoruba and Edo, the familial ways of speaking for which I lack the words.

In the years since my interaction with the man at Festac Grill, I’ve been teaching myself my languages gradually. What I do know is how easily the words roll off my tongue, how deeply soothing it is to pronounce them:

Ẹ ku abọ

Vbèè óye hé?

Ẹ ku aarọ

O ye mi

Kpẹlẹ

Koyo

I say these words to dig deeper into who I am, a child of the red soil of Benin, the grey mountains of Saki, and the ocean city of Port Harcourt. These Edo-Yoruba words ground my shaky identification with the country into which I was born yet still barely know. They allow me to picture a different life for myself, one in which we kids were granted access into our parents’ polyglot world, and where at night I dream in Edo and during the  day — one day — I write in Yoruba.

2018-04-06T19:53:04+00:00